In a very near future, the presence of man may not be necessary in cornfields, vineyards and cattle stalls or among bee hives and apple orchards. If you imagine a combination of science and technology, smart devices, driverless vehicles and drones, backed up of course by agricultural science, climate change studies and a huge database of information, you have a picture of tomorrow’s farm. Where man is conspicuously absent or, at least, can no longer be seen working in the fields, checking the maturity of his grapes or feeding his livestock.
The food of the future will grow autonomously thanks to the fact that the age of farm robots has arrived. The future is now: for some time now, Silicon Valley has started to invest resources and research on designing smart services and tools for feeding the Planet. Even today, some solutions are being applied by big American agricultural companies but the time is ripe for the introduction of automated production on smaller farms as well, also in Europe and Asia.
A tractor robot that is able to bed small plants in fields after having ploughed the land and prepared the soil. Such a tool exists already: it is just as accurate as the human hand and can even plant seeds at one centimetre intervals. In Oregon, for instance, man-driven tractors have become obsolete when it comes to planting Manitoba wheat seeds. However, this is not all a self-driving tractor can do: thanks to its own sensors and those planted in the soil, it is possible to keep track of soil moisture at all times and know whether it needs irrigation or protection; likewise a mini weather station analyses weather forecasts and conditions to provide up-front information on the progress and harvest of a crop. So, where has the farmer got to? He’s sitting in an office keeping everything under control on a monitor, or getting on with something else, while an application will warn him of any crisis and where it is necessary to take immediate action, all of which can be managed directly through his Smartphone.
From the mechanical arm of a drone
The farmer robot, or tractor robot, is able to gather olives and harvest or pick any type of fruit. There is a specialized technology for picking strawberries: a 14-arm robot developed in California, but there are also models that can pick oranges or unearth potatoes. They work day and night, even in the dark. Drones can fly over the fields, record images, study the lay of the land and spray fertilizer exactly where it is needed, thanks to an intelligent remote control system that is designed to reveal any anomalies. But it is also programmed to gather salient data regarding the land and the amount of produce harvested: which particular plot of land is most fertile? How much does an orchard actually yield?
Dairy cows untouched by human hands
As well as automated milking systems whose use is now quite widespread among breeders and in the dairy industry, today’s dairy cows are constantly monitored by the “moo monitor”. A special collar that measures temperatures, the amount of fodder consumed, weight, daily milk output and even the animal’s estrous cycle. In Ireland and Wales, they are widely used on livestock farms. Dairy Master for example produces one model connected to an app which calls up the cows by their number and presents a detailed chart that is updated all around the clock. The alternative method consists in so-called cow pills: sensor-enabled smart pills which, when swallowed, gather information on the animal’s health and physical condition.
The smallest robots are no bigger than bees
From infinitely large driverless robots for ploughing the land to a tiny bee-robot called Robobee, a Harvard university miniaturized robotics project. These minute bee robots can pollinate entire fields of plants and flowers as they collect meteorological data, look for lost animals and record images in the event of environmental disasters. They can either work alone or in swarms.
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