OFC13: Driverless tractors and robots to be the future of farming

DRIVERLESS tractors and robots performing a range of ‘manual’ tasks could be commonplace on Britain’s farms within a few decades, according to the chief executive of the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE).

David Gardner told the Oxford Farming Conference to expect huge technological advances over the ‘next 20 years or so’, making the industry an ‘exciting place to be’.

Central to his expected technological revolution was the prospect of machines increasingly taking over jobs currently undertaken by people.

He stressed that the process had already begun, with the development of robotic milking machines and, in the US, the robotic ‘weed zapper’ used in lettuce crops.

He showcased a prototype strawberry picker able to identify which strawberries are ripe and to pick the fruit without damaging it. The development of ‘sensitive’ prosthetic hands will provide further opportunities, particularly in the fruit sector, he said.

“They are making progress and we can look forward to a time in the future when we will have prosthetic hands that will be able to do manual tasks that currently we have to do ourselves,” he said.

The time may also come, he added, when tractor drivers are no longer necessary. Fendt is currently developing its driverless tractor where’ two tractors are linked together, so that they act as one unit’.

Mr Gardner said the machine could come onto the market, at least in some parts of the world, in 2014, making it the world’s first commercially available driverless tractor, once the regulators have been satisfied it is safe.

Mr Gardner acknowledged that the concept will be controversial when it comes to health and safety and public acceptance, while insurers will need to be persuaded to insure such machines. It will therefore take some time before the technology becomes commonplace.

“The technology is more or less there to do it today. They are doing it for lettuces with weed zappers in the US today,” Mr Gardner, adding that the machines could be set to move up and down fields to an accuracy of 2cm.

“The challenge as much as anything is us - society. You have the social aspect and you have to satisfy the whole safety issue,” he said.  

“But we might get to a situation where we do have blocks where do have deep ditches to stop the machines getting out and you might have farmers collaborating within a block of land.”

He said the technology would need to be developed gradually with ‘very lightweight, slow moving’ weed removers likely to become commonplace first before the public comes to accept driverless tractors.

Currently Fendt’s driverless tractor follows another tractor driven by a person that can control its movements. Mr Gardner said the next step was for to control more than one machine and then for a fleet of tractors to be controlled by an indivual on the ground.

“The next great step will be when we have the courage to actually remove that man altogether and leave the machines just to get on with the work,” he said.

Mr Gardner also highlighted the prospects of crops that can fix their own Nitrogen within the next 30 years, the next generation of genetically modified (GM) crops, moves to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis in maize and the clever use of boluses to monitor cattle health.

He said the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills was supporting technological development in agriculture through its Agritech Strategy, which is set to be published this spring.

Jake Freestone, farm manager at Overbury Farms and a 2013 Nuffield Scholar, delivered a well-received paper on precision farming, which also included an eye to a future where robots play a big part on our farms.

He said robots would be capable of planting seeds, recording where they were planted and returning two weeks later to check on germination. They were already capable, he added, of identifying weeds with cameras and micro-dot spraying a choice of selective herbicides massively reducing total herbicide use.

“If we are to move forward in food production – be more efficient, use less inputs, have less of an environmental impact – then I see no other way than through precision farming technologies,” he said.

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