23 May 2015 | Online since 2003



Farming with lazers and drones


Real-time crop data from the skies, microdot spraying at 1% of current pesticide costs and weeding with lazers - lazy rural idylls were thoroughly booted into touch when Prof Simon Blackmore presented his ‘vision of farming with robots’ this afternoon.

The Harper Adams agri-engineer was asked to talk about 2050, when an estimated 9bn mouths to feed worldwide will require innovative approaches to produce more, with less waste, while using fewer inputs.

His technological highlights included a dot lazer weeding robot, currently in development at Harper, and an autonomous sprayer - again a present prospect rather than farming future - which differentiates between weeds and crops and applies chemical only to weed leaves, saving “99.9% of product by volume”.

Then there was a selective crop harvester, which harvests to buyer specifications.

“Up to 60% of crops is not of saleable quality - so why harvest it? Crop robots might also mean we can keep value on the farm - grading, packing and sorting all at the point of harvest.”

The professor stressed that much of the sensor technology and computing power was already a reality. He said: “All of these concepts have been researched and developed, but not many are available through what the machinery manufacturers say is ‘lack of demand’ How long will it take for UK farmers to take advantage of these new opportunities?

Prof Blackmore said: “Is big always good? We’ve currently got huge problems with compaction. Up to 90% of energy going into cultivation is to repair damage caused by machines.”

He added that computer route planning of tractor paths could help. “Up to 96% of field compaction is caused by random traffic paths,” he said, before questioning the need to cultivate topsoil in its entirety.

“We can get right down to individual plant level and individual plant care,” he suggested.

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