Autonomous agriculture – the future of farming?
Technology and Business
Experienced farmers muck-in about how driverless tractors and other self-driving farm equipment will affect their lives and livings in the fields.
Automation and autonomy are exciting concepts, full of potential in any and every sector. But, for certain industries, they pose just as many drawbacks as they do opportunities. At least, they do according to the people who will be working with them.
At the 2017 Agritechnica, the international trade fair for agricultural tech, the technology company Continental presented some exciting new solutions for farmers. Among the many new technologies, there were a few nods to the emerging field of agricultural autonomy. It was widely heralded as the 'future of farming', throughout the trade fair – something which has only accelerated in the two years since.
But what about the people who will be using this new technology? After all, it's their lives, and their worlds, this technology will affect.
To find out, we speak to three of these very people, who come from two very different farming backgrounds.
Gary Trueman is an ex-dairy farmer and agricultural contractor who now owns a pasture holding in Spalding, Lincolnshire. He believes further automation, and autonomy, is "impossible to avoid". But, before it can happen, changes need to be made, with safety as a primary concern:
"When supervised to some degree, such as the tethering systems we already see today, or on its own working a field – yes, I would trust autonomous vehicles and machines to be safe. Operating on its own in a crew yard or on the road? No. Not yet, at least."
In terms of impact, on business and the economy, he is somewhat sceptical:
"Big corporate farms will likely embrace any new technology if it helps increase profits in some way. Smaller farms will have technology fed down to them over, most likely, decades, so the impact will be slower. As for the economy, considering farming is on its knees at the moment – autonomous systems would need to be able to improve yield to have a positive effect. I’m not sure that’s possible."
Timothy Berry, an organic beef farmer and former dairy farmer from Devonshire, UK, does not trust autonomous farming machines and equipment to be safe, and has fears that its introduction will mean less need for manual labourers. But he does believe there is an opportunity for larger businesses:
"Self-driven vehicles will be helpful with larger industrial-sized farms, but for smaller family farms, the financial implications would make this a no-go for most. This could lead to a huge divide between large industrial farms and smaller niche farms specialising in particular methods."
He is also concerned about the environmental impact of agricultural autonomy:
"There will probably be a negative impact on soil structures and more tech introduced into valuable countryside, with more powerlines and mechanical infrastructure."
However, for those working on the farms, there may be an upside in terms of working hours. Although how that time saved is spent is very dependent on the individuals:
"They will be spending less time in the cab, which means more social time."
The flowers and fields
Debbie Vale is an established horticulturalist, educated by the Royal Horticultural Society. She is also a multi-disciplined farmer, with nine years of experience maintaining agricultural holdings for both crops and livestock in both the UK and New Zealand.
She has already seen some significant changes in her line of work, including some big leaps in what technology makes possible in the day-to-day lives of farmers:
"The breakthroughs in technology have been incredible. It is possible to fully program some of the machinery we use with the help of an onboard computer, GPS signalling and onboard cameras. We have already used drones to herd sheep, too."
But what could be the impact of this technology becoming fully autonomous?
"From a business point of view, it would be very productive. Less would be spent on wages if vehicles replaced people."
"Driverless help could mean shorter working days. This could free up time to focus on green spaces. Farmers in America are already planting crops in circles and leaving the space left over wild to create a haven for wildlife. This is hugely important with the current bee problem."
More time for agricultural workers and experts leading to more conservation-lead activities would be most welcome in the agricultural sector, as many of them are increasingly concerned about the future:
"If we do not look after the fine balance needed for beneficial insects, it would have a devastating effect on food production. We are at a critical time in history where, if we do not start to reverse the damage done to the environment, we will lose a huge percentage of wildlife and thus the food available."
The future of farming
Agritechnica 2019 kicks off in Hanover in November. There will be even more autonomous exhibits on display than in previous years. But, as Gary points out, it's very important to look to the people before we look to the machines, to see how they want to be helped:
"Talk to the people that will be using them. That way, you give farmers what they need not what you think they need."
After all, it’s the farmers who know the land. Without them, and without agriculture, there isn't much of a future for any of us.
Join the debate!
Do you think a more autonomous agricultural sector will help or hinder the people who will use it?
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