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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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Singapore International Robo Expo debuts as the robotics sector is poised for accelerated growth
In partnership with Experia Events, the Singapore Industrial Automation Association sets its sights on boosting the robotics solutions industry with this strategic global platform for innovation and technology
Singapore, 18 October 2016 – The first Singapore International Robo Expo (SIRE), organised by Experia Events and co-organised by the Singapore Industrial Automation Association (SIAA), will be held from 1 to 2 November 2016, at Sands Expo and Convention Centre, Marina Bay Sands.
Themed Forging the Future of Robotics Solutions, SIRE will comprise an exhibition, product demonstrations, networking sessions and conferences. SIRE aims to be the global platform for governments, the private sector and the academia to engage in dialogues, share industry best practices, network, forge partnerships, and explore funding opportunities for the adoption of robotics solutions.
“SIRE debuts at a time when robotics has been gaining traction in the world due to the need for automation and better productivity. The latest World Robotics Report by the International Federation of Robotics has also identified Singapore as a market with one of the highest robot density in manufacturing – giving us more opportunities for further development in this field, and well as its extension into the services sectors.
With the S$450 million pledged by the Singapore government to the National Robotics Programme to develop the industry over the next three years, SIRE is aligned with these goals to cultivate the adoption of robotics and support the growing industry. As an association, we are constantly looking for ways to bring together robotic adoption, collaboration among partners, and providing support with funding for our members. SIRE is precisely the strategic platform for this,” said Mr Oliver Tian, President, SIAA.
SIRE has attracted strong interest from institutes of higher learning (IHLs), research institutes, local and international enterprises, with innovation and technology applicable for a vast range of industries from manufacturing to healthcare.
ST Kinetics, the Title Sponsor for the inaugural edition of the event, is one of the key exhibitors, together with other leading industry players such as ABB, Murata, Panasonic, SICK Pte Ltd, and Tech Avenue amongst others. Emerging SMEs such as H3 Dynamics, Design Tech Technologies and SMP Robotics Singapore will also showcase their innovations at the exhibition. Participating research institute, A*STAR’s SIMTech, and other IHLs supporting the event include Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Republic Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).
Visitors will also be able to view “live” demonstrations at the Demo Zone and come up close with the latest innovations and technologies. Some of the key highlights at the zone includes the world’s only fully autonomous outdoor security robot developed by SMP Robotics Singapore, as well as ABB’s Yumi, IRB 14000, a collaborative robot designed to work in close collaboration and proximity with humans safely. Dynamic Stabilization Systems, SIMTech and Design Tech will also be demonstrating the capabilities of their robotic innovations at the zone.
At the Singapore International Robo Convention, key speakers representing regulators, industry leaders and academia will come together, exchange insights and engage in discourse to address the various aspects of robotic and automation technology, industry trends and case studies of robotics solutions. There will also be a session discussing the details of the Singapore National Robotics Programme led by Mr Haryanto Tan, Head, Precision Engineering Cluster Group, EDB Singapore.
SIRE will also host the France-Singapore Innovation Days in collaboration with Business France, the national agency supporting the international development of the French economy. The organisation will lead a delegation of 20 key French companies to explore business and networking opportunities with Singapore firms, and conduct specialized workshops.
To further foster a deeper appreciation and to inspire the next generation of robotics and automation experts, the event will also host students from higher institutes of learning on Education Day on 2 November. Students will be able to immerse themselves in the exciting developments of the robotics industry and get a sampling of how robotics can be applied to real-world settings by visiting the exhibits and interacting with representatives from participating companies.
Mr Leck Chet Lam, Managing Director, Experia Events, says, “SIRE will be a game changer for the industry. We are expecting the industry’s best and new-to-market players to showcase their innovations, which could potentially add value to the operations across a wide spectrum of industry sectors, from manufacturing to retail and service, and healthcare. We also hope to inspire the robotics and automation experts of tomorrow with our Education Day programme.
Experia Events prides itself as a company that organises strategic events for the global stage, featuring thought leaders and working with the industries’ best. It is an honour for us to be partnering SIAA, a recognised body and key player in the robotics industry. We are privileged to be able to help elevate Singapore’s robotics industry through SIRE and are pulling out all stops to ensure that the event will be a resounding success.”
SIRE is supported by Strategic Partner, IE Singapore as well as agencies including EDB Singapore, GovTech Singapore, InfoComm Media Development Authority, A*STAR’s SIMTech, and Spring Singapore.
For further enquiries, please contact:
Marilyn HoExperia Events Pte LtdDirector, CommunicationsTel: +65 6595 6130Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Genevieve YeoExperia Events Pte LtdAssistant Manager, CommunicationsTel: +65 6595 6131Email: email@example.com
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