Buck Rogers comes to the farm as robots take over human tasks

Fifteen years or so ago, I attended a demonstration in a huge California crop field of a tractor equipped with gee whiz technology: auto-steer. A team of engineers and other specialists ministered to the system, fiddling with all the electrical/mechanical/software hoops to get the hands-free tractor to traverse the arrow-straight, level field.

Well, yeah, it’s interesting, was the consensus of the farmers in attendance — but practical? Probably not, given the cost and manpower required to make it work.

Never say never. Now, auto-steer and sophisticated electronic devices not even imagined in those days are commonplace and affordable on farms nationwide and worldwide.

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Gregory Kriehn, a faculty member with the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Fresno State, said at a recent seminar on unmanned aerial vehicles and other technologies, “My kids are probably going to be the last generation to drive themselves or fly in any sort of vehicle that is piloted by a human.”

As digital technologies leapfrog, the human involvement in the processes of the business world, including farming, is going to be less and less.

UAVs, already cheap to buy and relatively easy to operate, are seen as tools with applications limited only by imagination. From monitoring crop stress to spotting disease and pest outbreaks, to actual application of chemicals (which can be done at night), and who knows what else, these devices will increasingly be a part of the modern farm’s equipment lineup.

But the game-changer in terms of human capital had its roots in early-day gee whiz technology such as auto-steer: robots — now “farmbots,” to use the geekier terminology.

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These operator-less machines, programmed for specific field parameters, are in development or already at work on farms in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere. Prototypes of vineyard-pruning bots are in trials in the U.S. and Europe. Lettuce bots hoe weeds from around growing plants. Other sensor-equipped bots can monitor crops for moisture, diseases, and other conditions. Robotic milking systems are already in testing.

While these devices may need a lot of refining before they're widely used on commercial farms, the potential is there for them to become as commonplace as auto-steer and other gee-whiz technologies of a decade or more ago.

Farmbots can not only harvest crops, but at the same time amass data that can be used for production planning and financial management.

In the May 2014 issue of National Geographic, Jonathan Foley, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, notes that 40 percent of Earth’s land is devoted to food production, yet nearly a billion people are starving or malnourished.

With another 2 billion people projected by 2050, the global food supply will need to increase by 25 percent, he says, a challenge that technology and robotics can help to meet.

The USDA is spending several million dollars a year researching robots that can replace migrant farm workers for work in labor-intensive crops, and private industry programs are proliferating.

We ain’t seen nothin’ yet…

TAGS: Equipment
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