Directly linking the concepts “swarm intelligence” and “agriculture” is sure to evoke images of a biblical plague of locusts. In the not so distant future the former could revolutionize the latter. As part of the technological evolution of agriculture, en route to the fully automatized farm, fields are being tilled by swarms of little autonomous robots.
In 1984, a year pregnant with meaning, The Future World of Agriculture was published. Its subtitle, Walt Disney World EPCOT Center Book reveals EPCOT, a part of the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida that focuses on international culture and technological innovation, as the originator of the book. One of the illustrations in the book is of the farmer of the future at work. On a control panel and futuristic screens he monitors the activities on his automated farm. Along with a futuristic fleet of streamlined vehicles, you see in the background a small solitary robot at work. Thirty years ago who would have imagined how close this future was?
The American entrepreneur, David Dorhout, has brought it a step closer. Searching for a way to use farmland more efficiently and sustainably, he created the Prospero Robot Farmer. Instead of working a field hectare by hectare, small spider-like robots examine the soil inch by inch. If what’s there meets the pre-programmed requirements, the mini-bots automatically sow their seeds by burying them with an integrated drilling device. A sensor on the underside allows them to find the optimal depth. Via infrared they simultaneously communicate with one another, sending a signal when help is needed in a certain place. The more seeds a mini-bot plants the more its green LED glows, signaling to its fellow robots to join in. The more seeds there are in the soil the more intensely the red light glows, deflecting other robots from its spot.
The Prospero, or Autonomous Micro Planter (AMP), is the first of four steps toward the fully automatized robofarm. Steps two and three center on designing robots that take care of the crops and ultimately do the harvesting. The fourth and final step in this robo-evolution is a robot that combines all of these skills in one – that is, an autonomous, mechanical, mini-version of a real farmer.
What catalyzed Dorhout’s project was the realization that in agriculture new technology is always human-centered. Even with a GPS-controlled, self-driving tractor, the presence of a human is necessary to monitor its activity. And the human is by far the most expensive factor in agriculture. As a result working devices became larger with time to guarantee higher human productivity, yet at the expense of precision. Because soil is not uniform everywhere, yet is handled as such due to the size of the devices and time pressure, efficiency and yield suffer as a result. That’s where fastidious robots can put things right. Their self-sufficiency should free up farmers to take care of other things and reduce personnel expenses, while the robots work the fields as accurately as possible for the highest, most lucrative yield possible.
Yet progress is not just a matter of agriculture. Raising livestock is a part of technological advancement. Already in use on many farms, robotic milking employs ultrasound, lasers and optical sensors to milk cow after cow – around the clock. Whenever their utters are full, the cows pass through the electronic milk stalls. The robots adjust completely to their natural rhythms. Further, they are more efficient and time-saving than conventional milking systems, have higher yields and compile data on the cow’s health. The human only has to check a control panel at regular intervals to ensure that all is functioning properly.
As it is, interconnection via digital information technology seems to be of increasing importance. In the U.S. researchers are currently developing the Intelligent Farm. By networking satellites, computers, sensors and radio masts, weather data compiled is sent in real time to farmers’ smartphones and tablets. This can simplify making decisions about using water or fertilizer. Initial tests have shown that up to 15% and 25% could be saved on water an energy respectively, which had a positive effect on overall crop yields. Farmers used to have to leave the house and scan the horizon for potential rainclouds.
We are thus facing the fact that contemporary humans are ever retreating from manual labor – that which once made them what they are today. Here skeptics will perhaps see the increasing alienation of homo sapiens from their source, nature. Modern farmers certainly do have less dirt under their finger nails, and two horsepower have become 200. It can also seem unsettling that such developments are often a reaction to an impending global food shortage. But you can’t lose sight of the fact that technological innovation, as cold and mechanical as it may be, always acts as a link between us and nature. Having worked against nature in an attempt to dominate the earth for decades, machines now help us to better understand and respond to it. Technology can always be our adversary. Our partner, too.
In the future, our notion of what is humanly possible may not suffice to practice agriculture as we need it. However, the ingenuity with which people keep alive, enhance and perfect one of their oldest, most important activities, is absolutely wondrous. Even if that means letting a robot lend a helping hand every once and a while.