Farming gets Smart

You’d be forgiven for thinking of farming as old-fashioned, slow and a bit low-tech. Popular culture and commercials sell us a nostalgic image of the countryside. Singing farm-hands stand knee-deep in the same wholesome soil their branded potato chips came from. The camera pans to a family farm that embody honest and earthy old-fashioned values, as distant from our mobile screens and social media as Constable’s Hay wain and Wood’s American Gothic.

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The public image of agriculture is not particularly high-tech. Picture credit: http://www.freeimages.com

While this is all good for fast-food advertisers, it’s not at all accurate. Agriculture has always changed. From the first horse-drawn ploughs to the 20th century green revolution, farming has been striving to feed ever increasing populations more and more efficiently. This has meant that less and less unskilled labour has been needed in the fields, with more hands and brains to do more of everything else.

The next few years will be no exception in terms of change. Farms are undergoing a high-tech revolution, with processing power, GPS satellites, data science, drones, driverless vehicles and the Internet of Things all set to radically change the way farming is done. The application of these recent and new technologies to the rearing of crops and livestock has been variously called precision agriculture, smart agriculture, digital agriculture and farming 4.0. According to Richard Markwell, president of CEMA (the European association representing the European agricultural machinery industry),

It’s about bringing technology to farmers to ensure they can meet the challenge of producing more food, with less land, in a sustainable manner, at an affordable price in the supermarket.

Precision Agriculture uses automation to save labour, and to do things that would take humans too long, using sensors and data science to make farming more responsive to spatial variation (in soil conditions, in water availability and in the presence of pests). Use satellite images, drones and big data algorithms to get to know the soil at different locations in a field and you can choose the best crop variety for the specific location and only the necessary amount of fertiliser or pesticide. Put driverless technology into tractors and harvesters and you can replace heavy soil-compacting tractors with a fleet of small and nimble vehicles, crammed with sensors, and sending regular updates to a centralised database. It looks likely to be pretty user-friendly, with companies like Agricision developing iOS apps for the iPhone and iPad.

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Drones are likely to really take-off (!) in farming. Picture credit: http://www.publicdomainpictures.net

Previous agricultural revolutions have been associated with a reduced need for farmers and farm employees, but this needn’t be the case with precision agriculture. As Kit Franklin, a researcher at Harper Adams University and part of a team attempting to orchestrate the world’s first robot farmed field, says:

It’s not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won’t be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.

Experts anticipate that each of these approaches will provide large improvements in yields and reductions in the monetary and environmental costs associated with the over-application of fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. Goldman Sachs Research predicts that precision planting (the right seeds for each acre) alone could drive “a double digit improvement in yields”, and that precision farming could be a $240 billion market by 2050. CEMA‘s website states that “Data is the key ingredient for the European farming sector to become more productive and sustainable and remain competitive in a global environment”.

Given that we’ll need to feed almost ten billion people by 2050 and deal with the effects of climate change, the focus on high tech agriculture is certainly for the best – current practices may not be able to keep up. It’s an interesting time. The technology is still in its infancy, and agricultural retail communicators Crop Life estimate that fewer than 15% of US farmers are using data technologies to support decision making.

Weekly Blog Feature – Smart Farming

There’s a lot going on in high-tech agriculture at the moment. There’s lots of interesting science, new technology and new applications of existing technology. It will affect food security; large and small farms; farmers in developed and developing countries; arable, livestock and viticulture.

There’s so much going on (and I’d love to know more!) that I’ve decided to try to write a regular blog feature on it. I’ll be doing one per week – starting this week. My current ideas include drones in agriculture, precision agriculture investment, organic farming and applications in the developing world.

But, what I’d really love to hear are YOUR suggestions! Whether you’re a precision agriculture expert, or like me, curious to see whether a robot could control an English sheep-dog, please feel free to leave any suggestions in the comments. Oh, and remember to subscribe by email if you’re interested in future articles in the series.

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Picture credit: http://www.unsplash.com
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A New Age of Discovery

The announcement that seven Earth-sized planets had been discovered 39.5 light years away has been big news here on Earth. Led by Michaël Gillon at the University of Liège, a multinational team of scientists were supported by a range of universities, private companies and government organizations including NASA. While discoveries of exoplanets are now common, the recent additions are in their star’s habitable zone and may harbour liquid water. This led to speculation that the planets could host alien life, or have breathable atmospheres. Habitable or not, the planets have so far proved to bear little resemblance to Earth. Their sun (called TRAPPIST-1 after one of the telescopes that helped discover it) is only 10% of the mass of our sun and is an ultra cool dwarf star. This means that, viewed from the planets, it would be about as dim as Earth’s sunsets. Even stranger, they have very short orbits and seem to be tidally locked, meaning that one side is always facing the sun and the other facing away. While this may have put a few obstacles in life’s development, some believe that the best chances of life are on the improbably named terminators, the twilight regions separating perpetual day and night.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is much closer to its star than our solar system.

Lots has already been written about these distant worlds, which have fired imaginations on Earth into wild speculation. Time will tell whether this will lead to greater engagement with astronomy and space exploration, but (from the media at least) there seems to be real excitement about what’s out there. Thinking about all this – about stuff 235 trillion miles and its relation to our place in the universe, sentient life’s apparent uniqueness to Earth and mankind’s possible futures is all pretty humbling. Detecting potentially habitable planets far away from our solar system really feels like being on the cusp of another Age of Discovery.

The Age of Discovery usually describes the period from the 15th to 18th centuries when Europeans first became aware of large parts of the Earth’s geography. This includes the trans-Atlantic voyages of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s, the Russian exploration of Siberia and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe between 1519 and 1522. Incredible though these achievements were, all of the continents and most of the islands discovered by Europeans had human populations that had been there for hundreds or thousands of years, and who with hindsight would very likely have rather been left undiscovered.

Map with Ferdinand Magellan’s ship Victoria. Magellan led the first expedition to circumnavigate the world, successfully crossing the Atlantic and Pacific before dying in the Philippines. Juan Sebastian Elcano completed the expedition.

Around the same period a different type of explorer had their sights set on things even grander and further away. By looking at the known planets through telescopes, astronomers were able to improve their understanding of these distant bodies and their motions. With bigger and better telescopes, more planets were discovered. People wondered if our cosmic neighbours could sustain life. Were there trees up there? Animals? Bipeds with opposable thumbs?

So far the answer seems to be no. Since the late 20th century, unmanned probes, together with manned missions to the moon suggest that the Earth aside, the solar system is barren and lifeless. The other planets have such different conditions to the Earth that if life did exist elsewhere, it would need to be very different to life as we know it. This is not to say that life of some sort couldn’t exist elsewhere in our solar system. Given the diversity of life on Earth,  beings who evolved elsewhere could look nothing like us, they may not even need water to survive and could be silicon based. They could be so weird as to have a totally different understanding of time, could be hiding in dark matter, or even the laws of physics themselves. Exhilarating though these possibilities are, no direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life has yet been found.

The pace of exoplanet discovery has increased over the past few years thanks to NASA’s Kepler programme.

More recently, astronomers have been able to look beyond our solar system. While Isaac Newton and the 16th century Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno both speculated about worlds orbiting other stars, actually exploring the nearest stars for signs of additional planets wasn’t possible until the late 1980s. This is because the amount of light reaching us from even these nearest stars is so miniscule. The first discovery of an exoplanet was confirmed in 1992, with more than 3300 confirmed as of February 2017 and thousands more awaiting confirmation. These come in all shapes and sizes, from Earth sized planets to gas giants larger than Jupiter, orbiting stars similar to our own or pulsars, and even orbiting several stars. Many of these planets are either too big or too far away from their stars to be able to harbour carbon-based life, however some planets, including some of the most recent TRAPPIST-1 additions are inside their star’s habitable zone.

Despite the potential alien-ness of extra-terrestrial life, scientists including NASA’s Kepler programme, have tended to focus on planets that could harbour the type of carbon based life found on Earth, and despite terrestrial life’s diversity (jellyfish, thermo-resistant bacteria, bats etc), all known organisms are made of the same types of organic compounds. To form, these require liquid water, which can only exist in a specific range of temperatures and atmospheric pressures. The habitable zone around a star is the region of space where planets could sustain liquid water providing they had the right type of atmosphere. This is no guarantee of habitable conditions: Mars and Venus are both within our sun’s habitable zone, but Mars’ atmosphere is too thin and Venus’ is too thick. Neither does it preclude the possibility of silicon, methane, dark-matter or the-very-laws-of-physics-themselves based life elsewhere in the universe, with multiple habitable zones based on substances other than water being proposed.

A life-size replica of the James Webb Space Telescope. The real thing will be launched in 2018.

So, what next? In the immediate future, NASA are preparing to launch the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. “With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere” (NASA website). This will allow scientists to determine whether the planets have Earth-like atmospheres or liquid oceans. At the same time, the hunt for exoplanets continues at an accelerating pace. Potentially habitable systems like TRAPPIST-1 may turn out to be rare, or we may make many similar discoveries over the next few years. Either way, we seem to have crossed some of the technological barriers to explore the universe, albeit from the comfort of Earth.