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The farms of the future

Copyright: Harper Adams University/AGCO

Researchers are looking ahead to plan tomorrow’s food production, and with good reason. Follow #globalfarm on Twitter for more.

“Global Farm #327D Notifications: energy nominal; inputs nominal; overnight yields +3% good; air quality good; restricted emissions low, pest status low; pathogen detection ultra-low; water reserve fair. Cloud data upload complete. Immediate actionable issues: Rover #4 battery critical; Rover #7 reports on-field anomaly, repair recommended.”

Pretty much standard, Technical Farm Liaison Officer Lara Abdulla thought as the notifications scrolled up on her smartphone. Sipping coffee, she had to admit the stuff they grew inside here was the best she had ever tasted. Calling in RoboCrop Repair to take a closer look at the rover, another set of updates rolled in this time for Global Farm #579E, where it was never quite so easy. Still, that one was much nearer it would be good to get outside once it was a little warmer.

The story above is only part fiction. Many of the technologies described are in development or actually in use now. Others are ideas and concepts. One thing is clear: the future of food production is under development now. So what will the farm of the future look like?

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Automation, automation, automation

History tells us that the future will be like the past, but more so. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the introduction of mass mechanisation – the first tractors and the seed drill, with railroads leading the produce to hungry industrial towns. Today’s increasing world urban population means that food in the average kitchen in developed countries (and many developing ones) contains ingredients produced this way from all around the world. So nothing about the future says it will be divorced from past trends towards greater mechanisation.

The farm of the future will feature automated roving robots to seek and destroy pests and pathogens, or plant seeds (above). Copyright: Harper Adams University/AGCO

“Agricultural robots will have a major impact on the way we produce food by making the whole process significantly more efficient,” says Professor Simon Blackmore, Head of Engineering at Harper Adams University where he is also Director of the National Centre for Precision Farming. “These changes will be very disruptive both in terms of the way we farm now and how we support the farming process.”

Tractors can already drive themselves using global satellite navigation systems such as GPS. But this is just the start. A system called controlled traffic farming (CTF) uses GPS to drive farm vehicles over the same lanes when spraying fertilisers or pesticides. This increases the growing area and reduces damage to soil through compaction, which can reduce yields and increase the energy inputs needed. Yet just 1.5% of the UK’s substantial agricultural area is using CTF, and almost none in the developed world.

Better, lighter, automated machines could enable systems that go far beyond CTF. Autonomous drones like the octocopter being trialled at Rothamsted Research, an institute that receives funding from BBSRC. This demonstrator technology shows that it’s possible to measure plant growth and monitor crop stress, in reaction to water drought for example, from the air and autonomously.

These ‘eyes in the sky’ can carry multispectral cameras that see in UV, infrared as well as visible light. Under manual or GPS control, they can see, count and record aspects of plant growth that the human eye can’t see, and traverse more ground in a shorter space of time than a humble human.

Already, drones are being used to sow seeds, monitor crops and for general and widespread on-farm reconnaissance – spotting anything from a broken fence to a lost cow – but equipped with scanning lasers guiding micro spraying nozzles, it’s not out of the realm of science fiction to see drones spraying individual plants, or even individual leaves, to zap pest insects.

A report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International predicts the legalisation of commercial drones will create more than USD $80Bn from 2015-25, and that this type of precision agriculture will provide the biggest proportion of that economic impact. Not only that, the relatively low cost of drones means that much of that impact could come from small- and medium-scale farmers who can adopt and adapt the technology more nimbly than larger Big-Ag corporations.

RoboCrop

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, can see crops in ways people can’t. Watch the Octocopter in action. Copyright: Rothamsted Research

For those feeling uneasy about craft swooping down from the skies – possibly with the ability to spray toxic chemicals – you’re not alone. This is why the pest-busting autonomous vehicles of the future are likely to be rolling slowly, sedately and safely along the ground.

Real-life rover vehicles under development include scout vehicles that can sow seeds, identify and kill weeds using lasers, and tell when the crop food is ready for harvesting. “The biggest game-changing technology is going to be the smart autonomous vehicles that can do what the farm manager wants, but also have enough smarts embedded within it to save energy in all its different forms,” says Blackmore.

His research has reduced the cropping cycle to four stages or sets of machines (pictured): 1) establishment that includes seedbed preparation, setting the seed and early fertilisation; 2) crop scouting that can use various types of solid state non-contact sensors to better understand the soil and crop environment; 3) crop care that includes weeding, pest control and fertilisation; and 4) selective harvesting.

These concept vehicles, akin to the Rover #4 and #7 described above, promise to take more than just the back-breaking labour out of agriculture, but could vastly reduce the use of pesticides and other chemicals by only using them where needed, known as precision farming (PDF). It can save time, money and reduce negative environmental impacts of common inputs like fertiliser. “Intelligently-targeted inputs are the biggest breakthrough,” says Blackmore.

Robotic harvesters are already a reality in agriculture and will do much more in the future. Copyright: Bosch/Deepfield Robots

In fact, a precision farming consultant is on record saying that about 60% of Britain's farmland is now being managed by elements of precision farming methods, which include sensor systems, cameras, drones, microphones, virtual field maps, analytics and GPS-guided tractors.

If all this autonomy sounds unsettling, it’s worth bearing in mind that machines are already in use that can pick thousands of tomatoes per hour, 1 citrus fruit every 2-3 seconds, or prune 600 wine vines a day.

But these are hardier fruit and veg – the real challenge is soft fruits that need a more tender touch. Blackmore is using BBSRC funding for the multi-disciplinary AUTOPIC project, aimed at mechanising the harvesting of soft fruit on farms through the use of autonomous vehicles and robotics. It’s no small thing: the UK strawberries market alone is worth around £300M per year, and besides Harper Adams University, partners include the National Physical Laboratory, the Shadow Robot Company and Interface Devices Limited.

Nor are such efforts consigned to plants. Robotic milking machines have been taking the strain (and early morning starts) from people for years. The cows are fed as they are milked, which provides ample motivation for the animals to take up position and let the robot hands work their teats. Dairymaster in Ireland have even designed a next-generation machine that mimics a suckling calf rather than human hands, as well as ‘moo monitors’ worn by each animal that transmit real-time updates on each cow to farmers’ mobile phones.

Copyright: NPPC/IBERS
How the machines see it: farms of the future will contain high-tech sensors to spot emerging threats. Copyright: NPPC/IBERS

So far, so good. But so expensive? It’s easy to think that such technology is too expensive to service the true global farm, but Blackmore says agricultural robots will be a worldwide commodity. “The average size of fields in Asia is about 1 acre [0.4ha, about half a football pitch] and cannot use the big tractors. Extra production in the UK will not come from the prairie fields we now have in the east, but from the smaller fields and farms that cannot use the big tractors.”

He says that agricultural robots will become a leapfrog technology, like smart phones. “Many farmers around the world, even those in developing countries, now have smartphones which give them access to market prices, agricultural information and expert knowledge.”

Sensing, testing, measuring

The farms of the future will make significant use of advances in smart sensing devices. From specialised systems to detect and measure nutrients, toxins, pests and environmental conditions, to more generic data gathering and display tools hosted on smart phones – everything from daylight levels in a small corner of the field to crop pathogen and pest identification guides. These will be ever more important as climate change threatens the resilience of food chains and changes the distribution of pests and pathogens, further spread around the world by global trade.

For instance, the SYield Biosensing Network project developed a prototype biosensor that, when placed in a field of oilseed rape, could detect a certain fungal pathogen within four days of its arrival. Funded by Innovate UK and Syngenta, the system can see the ‘white mouldSclerotinia sclerotiorum that can also cause massive yield losses in fields of beans, potato, and soybean. It’s still a prototype, but very much the shape of things to come, especially if married to ultrafast DNA sequencing to detect genes associated with emerging microbial threats.

In the abiotic world, similar systems have already been trialled in Africa. The EPSRC-funded Village e-Science for Life project (VESEL) project used in-field sensors for local measurements of temperature, humidity, air pressure, light and soil moisture. After all, autonomous drones and vehicles might be keen to swoop in and zap pests with micro-doses of pesticide or precision lasers, but something has to tell the machines that the pests have arrived, where they are, and if conditions are right for a given treatment – local conditions might not yet suit a spray, such as hot or windy days when droplets could be carried into neighbouring organic farms.

A flowchart representation of how sensor-scanning systems can feedback to humans, cloud databanks or autonomous vehicles. Copyright: B. Grieve/The University of Manchester

These advanced sensor systems are part of the emerging ‘e-Agri’ field. Dr Bruce Grieve, Director of e-Agri Sensors Centre at the University of Manchester, says this approach will offer farmers, food producers and consumers direct and meaningful data on their crops, livestock & produce that would previously only been available via expensive and lengthy laboratory tests.

He also advocates a strategy that in time could be suitable for farms across the globe. “The underlying message, from my perspective, is to go ‘cheap and cheerful’,” he says. “Reduce the component costs whilst maintaining appropriate functionality in agri-sensor systems and then enable enough people and applications to use the technology such that very different insights into the agri-food world can be created.”

Copyright: University of Lancaster/G. Blair
The internet of sheep: prototype sensors on the animals’ backs monitor location; accelerometer data can also be used to infer behaviour. Copyright: University of Lancaster/G. Blair

The path to this is reducing the cost and increasing the availability of sensor systems, by embedding them within mobile phones and cheap wireless sensor-nodes, as mooted for the coming Internet of Things (IoT). So just as the fridge of the future could sense when food is about to go off and remind you to eat it, on-farm sensors could communicate with autonomous vehicles, who in-turn talk to farmers about when food is ripe for harvest, to suppliers when running low on consumables, or engineers when they are in need of repair.

And it’s bringing all this information together that could really reap benefits. “The real strength comes when all these new sensor systems, in people’s pockets, gardens and fields, all relay their information back to a central point,” says Grieve, whose work in this field is funded by the £70M Agri-Tech Catalyst fund set up by Innovate UK, DFID and BBSRC. He sees this new dynamic data amalgamated with traditional information such as weather forecasts and commodity prices to give real-time Google Maps-like images to help manage farms large and small, all around the world.

Another scientist looking to this future is Professor Gordon Blair at the University of Lancaster. He heads up the Environmental IoT project that is using IoT technology to monitor factors related to water quality, flooding or scarcity, soil conditions, animal movements (such as the sheep above) and weather patterns. “This data is then fed back into cloud infrastructure where it can be analysed and visualised,” he says.

Copyright: Cool Farm Shop
The Cool Farm Tool is one of many new smartphone and tablet-based apps for farmers and food growers. Copyright: Cool Farm Tool

Blair says the project, funded by the EPSRC Digital Economies programme, has many beneficiaries including environmental scientists seeking deeper understanding of the natural environment, water companies, and also participants in agriculture and food production. “The real-time data provided can help support precision agriculture for example and also help to identify other threats, including environmental change or crop and animal diseases,” says Blair.

There’s an app for that

These days, there is an app for everything. And farming is no different. Launched in 2013, the NERC-funded Cool Farm Tool gives farmers and food growers a simple but accurate way to estimate a farm's GHG emissions. It calculates farm-level greenhouse-gas emissions based on research from many data sets, and the tool identifies emission hotspots and allows easy comparison of alternative management scenarios.

The project was initiated by Unilever and researchers at the University of Aberdeen, and has since spread to other major players in the agri-food industry, such as PepsiCo, Marks & Spencer, Tesco and Heineken.

Copyright: University of Manchester/University of Bonn
Computer scanning in different wavelengths aspects of plant health, such as pest damage, that human eyes miss. Copyright: The University of Manchester/University of Bonn

There’s also the aptly named Farm Crap App (formally the Farm Manure Management App). It can help farmers visually assess the nutritive and economic value of livestock manures by calculating available nitrogen, phosphate and potash values. It won the Soil Association’s Innovation Award in 2014.

Apps also have a massive part to play in how consumers choose food in the supermarket (to be covered in a future feature) as they are essentially pocket computers that can feed information to the cloud. But bolting on equipment is another way to turn ordinary smartphones, increasingly used in developing countries, into powerful diagnostic tools.

For instance, researchers at the University of Manchester are developing a low-cost hyperspectral camera that can see in many wavelengths, beyond merely UV and infrared, which could provide a way to detect pest and pathogen presence at the crucial early onset where treatments can most make a difference.

The same system can also detect plant disorders, such as a lack of nutrients or water. This information might even be able to tell tractors and autonomous vehicles where to target pests or add nutrients (or not add them where there is plenty).

Mixing it up

The technologies described so far haven’t once mentioned what’s growing around them. And that’s partly the point – these are all enabling technologies that can be used on organic farms as much as conventional ones, in agroforestry and monocultures of oilseed rape, on a wide plateau or in an urban vertical farm.

But that’s not to say that the farms of the future won’t be mixing systems and trying new varieties of plants, some genetically engineered or edited to better suit the surrounding conditions. Or grown with naturally-occurring fungi that can increase root proliferation and use less water.

Copyright: Spread
The Spread factory in Kameoka, near Kyoto, can harvest 21,000 heads of lettuce per day in a semi-automated, pesticide-free controlled environment. Copyright: Spread

Mixed-system farming is not new, but the farms of the future will increasingly take advantage of specific local biological and physical opportunities. For example, Cornerways nursery in Norfolk, UK, redirects the waste heat and CO2 from the nearby Wissington sugar factory into its glasshouses, enabling a staggering 180M tomatoes to be grown from 250,000 plants in the UK's largest single tomato glasshouse covering 18 hectares – that’s around the size of 20 football pitches. In a similar vein, Thanet Earth in Kent directs the waste heat and CO2 produced by on-site electricity generation back into its glasshouses.

This is controlled environment farming on an industrial scale, where growers have almost complete control of the growing environment and can use biological control agents instead of pesticides. It doesn’t always have to be on such a big scale – vertical and underground farms are already rocking up next to industrial and commercial centres in cities to use waste products and heat in a similar way, from underground aquaponics to rooftop bee hives. This also reduces transportation costs and energy because their customers are nearby.

Industrial-scale vertical farms utilising highly efficient LED lights between stacked growing floors have been established globally, including in the US, Netherlands, Singapore and Japan. The Green Sense Farm in the US has 14 levels and a reported 9,290m2 of growth area available on a floor space of just 2,787m2.

Copyright: Arup Foresight report
‘Vertical’ farms are being integrated into building designs of the future, and are already a reality in some cities. Copyright: Arup Foresight report

Other opportunities for intelligent mixed systems include using a farm’s on-site ‘waste’ materials for processing into something useful. Research led by project supervisor Dr Emily Burton of Nottingham Trent University has shown that the by-products of bioethanol production, in this case yeast protein concentrate (YPC), can be a cost-competitive alternative to soya-based protein and other feeds given to chickens bred for meat production.

“Use of co-production animal feed reduces competition for protein crops,” says Burton. “On a local level, use of bioethanol co-products may also help European farmers, as we are very vulnerable to global price fluctuations in raw materials such as soya, so maintaining a local supply chain reduces commercial risk – and reduces transport too.”

Placing future distilleries – anything from craft beer to biofuels – next to chicken farms means the factories can work with each other, with minimal transport costs. The global farms of the future will increasingly be brand new ventures pitched up next to efficiency-driven opportunities to save time, energy and costs.

What do we want the future to look like?

Of course, an efficiency-driven agenda resulting in ever more automation is not quite everyone’s cup of tea. This is food we’re talking about – shouldn’t it be driven by taste over efficiency of production? Or nutritional quality? Conventional breeding has selected tomatoes to be machine-pickable at the expense of taste, for example. Farmers’ markets are an increasingly popular way for people to try novel varieties and more novel foods, but the prices are not suitable for every shopper.

But with the increasing urbanisation of the world’s population – 54% of the global population in 2014, up from 34% in 1960 – the need to grow more food with less labour is greater than ever. In fact, it’s the same drivers as in developed countries the 1800s when improved transport and opportunities drew people to cities. The difference this time is that it’s happening on a global scale.

Copyright: GPS4US.com
Too high-tech? We need to talk about what we really want from our food. Copyright: GPS4US.com

Amid the development of new technologies, an important conversation is about what we want our future food to look like – and this will feed into the design of the future farms that produce it.

“Inputs from the social sciences will be vital to the future sustainability of food production in informing the design and implementation of new approaches, and in understanding their social and behavioural consequences,” says Dr Jeremy Phillipson from Newcastle University, who is also is coordinator of Landbridge, an ESRC-funded knowledge exchange network for rural professionals.

Phillipson adds that there is great potential to creatively exploit technological opportunities, but agri-food technologies must work with the grain of societal demands and be sensitive to the social and economic contexts of application. “They are hugely dependent on behavioural and institutional adaptations in social, political, economic systems,” he says. “It is therefore vital we acknowledge the combined socio-technical challenges in contemporary food systems and the innovations needed to address them.”

Copyright: AGCO/Harper Adams University
Concept illustration for a robot that can tell when produce is ready for harvest. Copyright: AGCO/Harper Adams University

There are common global drivers of food production that will impact upon how the farms of the future will look – everything from emerging plants and animal diseases to increased global trade to the challenges presented climate change. On top of that, farmers want better prices, the public wants local nutritious and tasty food, politicians want food security and everyone wants a greater degree of environmental sustainability. Technology, from robotics to remote sensing to cloud computing to draw all the data together, will play a crucial part in this and UK scientists are well positioned to deliver.

The farms of the future might well run along the lines described at the very start of this article, with highly-trained operators remotely surveying a vast array of real-time farm information, with the onus on smart systems driven by efficiencies of scale leading to vastly reduced chemical inputs. Yet food is food, and people can vote with their money if it doesn’t taste good, so the farms of the future will probably be more varied than ever before.

You can also see this feature on our Medium channel.

Banner image copyright: Mermusta/iStock


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