Writing in issue 2888 of New Scientist, James Mitchell Crow introduces us to the notion that robots will, sooner or later, be tending the crops we depend upon for food, and takes us on a whirlwind world tour of some of the people working to bring this about and some of the technologies that have already been developed.
He begins with Simon Blackmore, of Harper Adams University College, who tells us about robotic technologies that have already found their way into new tractors, implements, and combine harvesters. Blackmore also discusses the energetics of cultivation, saying “Why do we plough? Mainly to repair the damage that we have caused with big tractors. Up to 80 per cent of the energy going into cultivation is there to repair this damage.” He proposes an altogether different approach, using light-weight, autonomous machines. Crow summarizes the requirements list for these machines thusly: “These agribots need to have three key abilities: to navigate, to interpret the scene in front of them, and to be able to help the farmer, by blasting a weed, applying a chemical or harvesting the crop.”