What autonomous machines could mean for sustainable agriculture

The full article was originally published on IOTA Untangled. Read the full article here.

If robots can autonomously plant, nurture, and harvest crops, we don’t need humans to operate machines. The implications of this on labour, energy use, and machine design make this form of farming way more efficient. Not just from an economical perspective but from an ecological perspective too.

A short history of automation in agriculture

Automation in agriculture went from hand tools and ox plows to mechanization like Jethro Tull’s seed drill or the grain cradle. Mechanization truly kicked off efficiency. Within a century the the grain cradle alone decimated the amount of labour needed to cut, rake, and bind an acre of wheat1.

Mechanization in agriculture has brought us tremendous wealth. Because we were able to reduce labour from over 55% of the labour force to as low as a few percent in the past centuries, we have been able to securely feed our population, while also having time to invent new stuff. At least in the western world.

With the arrival of automation, the share of the labour force working in agriculture has dropped significantly in Europe. Source.

In developing countries the percentages can still be pre-industrial2. Increased automation in agriculture worldwide would mean an immense boost to prosperity for mankind. That seems like a no-brainer. However using the methods we use in the western world everywhere is a bad idea.

Take the bad with the good

Mechanization has brought many benefits – higher yield, more reliability, lower cost – but it comes with disadvantages too. Besides displacing unskilled farm labour, it can cause environmental degradation. In a previous post we explained the importance of topsoil.

Using heavy plows3 for instance can lead to serious environmental degradation. Plowing can improve soil conditions in the short term, and reduce weed, insects and pests. In the long term however, the tillage results in soil compaction. It also prevents soil organic matter from building up in the soil. This leads to soil erosion. Combined, compaction and erosion make the soil unable to handle rainfall. The effects on the whole ecosystem are devastating. No tillage has its own disadvantages of course. But people are working on solutions, like developing autonomous bots – usually called weed whackers – that help keep weeds in check. This means less herbicide is needed.

What is a weed whacker?

A Weed Whacker is a robot that mechanically whacks the weed at an early stage. This gives crops space to grow, and improves yield. The method does not use herbicides, and does not damage crops. Weed whackers can provide a higher yield, with (even) less manual labour.

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