Robots are the new farm horses
Robots have revolutionised the manufacturing industries.
Could they do the same for farming?
In this article we are taking a 'swords into ploughshares' approach.
That is, we propose using British weapons design skills to create a new type of robot agricultural tractor.
This will create new jobs at a time when the defense
industry is making people redundant.
This will create new jobs at a time when the defense industry is making people redundant.
1. To use battlefield technology as the basis for a 'green' agrarian revolution.
2. To create new jobs for defense industry employees threatened with redundancy.
3. To reduce the risk of floods that are exacerbated by modern farming methods.
The proposal in a nutshell
During the Victorian era, horse drawn machinery worked moderate sized fields bordered by hedges and trees.
Compared with today’s big field farming, Victorian agriculture was eco-friendly but inefficient and very man-power intensive.
British battlefield technology could be adapted to create a new generation of small 'robo tractors'. These would replace the old farm horses and have sufficient programmed intelligence to act independently most of the time. The farmer’s role would be to monitor the movements of robo tractor teams and take corrective action where necessary.
A new company would be formed to manufacture the robo tractors. Existing defense companies such as BAE Systems would be a major shareholders.
Figure 1. 'Horse sized' robot tractors would replace the muscle power of farm horses. Swarms of robots could be monitored from a central location. For example, using a cherry picker that doubles up as a 'tractor cabin'. Alternatively, small drones could act as the farmers 'eye in the sky'.
Robotic farming will create an agrarian revolution that combines the environmental benefits of Victorian farming with the efficiency of large scale field farming.
Intelligent camera systems could monitor the health of cropping areas, minimising the usage of agri-chemicals.
Intelligent systems would also distinguish between weeds and crops. This would assist robotic hoeing and weeding, further reducing the need for chemicals.
Limitations: The outdoor farming environment is more vulnerable to the whims of fortune than an indoor factory. [e.g., baler twine or branches snagging up ploughs.] The first generation of robo tractors will probably require two operatives, one overseeing operations from the "tractor cabin", the other, troubleshooting in the field.
Overcoming the carbon footprint problem
A swarm of small tractors will consume more red diesel than a single large tractor tilling the same area of ground. This disadvantage could be overcome if the robo-tractors are designed to run on hydrogen fuel, with Latent Power Turbines being used to provide electricity, for manufacturing hydrogen on the farm.
Creating jobs in the rural tourism industry
Planting new hedges will slightly reduce the cropping area, but we propose turning this into an economic advantage.
Agricultural productivity will be low within a 2 meter shadow of the hedges. This space can be given an alternative use, creating new attractions for the rural tourism industry.
Figure 2. Rural tourism could exist in harmony with farming. The new generation of e-bikes would allow many disabled people to enjoy the countryside.
What the rural community will gain
[Data source: “Red squirrel could vanish in 20 years,” page 13, Sunday Times News Section, 25 September 2011.]
generates approximately sixteen times as much income as farming.
Robo farming could
BAE Systems & other defense companies
A more detailed discussion of the proposal
Throughout the twentieth century, European arable farmers have been forced to adopt North American prairie farming techniques, in order to remain commercially competitive.
The results are proving to be an environmental disaster. Wild life habitats have been lost and soils have been depleted by wind and rain erosion as hedges are removed.
Annual topsoil losses of between 0.1 and 20 tones per hectare are silting our rivers and clogging our drains. [“Century of neglect means the land can’t take any more, Sunday Times News, page 12, 29 July 2007.]
Water polluting agri-chemicals have to be used in large quantities to compensate for the reduced soil quality and loss of natural pest controls.
The poor water holding capacity of large exposed fields combined with blocked drains is contributing to the devastating effects of flash floods as climate change becomes reality. Ironically, the rapid drainage is also causing drinking water shortages because the water has less time to trickle down into the aquifers.
Reversing this trend is within our grasp
We need to revert to traditional Victorian small field farming, but use GPS/radio transmitter guided robo-tractor teams, supervised by human controllers, to allow the efficient cultivating of the land. Robo-tractors would have a shorter working length than existing models because seeds and agri-chemicals could be carried in the space currently occupied by the driver’s cabin. Ploughs and other tractor attachments would be miniaturised to allow operations in small fields. But productivity could be higher than using prairie farm machinery because one controller would supervise several tractors.
The controller would teach the robo-tractors the locations of the field boundaries, in a one-off human guided boundary touring exercise.
Subsequent robo-tractor team activities would be monitored by the controller using a screen display indicating the GPS located positions of the tractor team.
Guidance in GPS blind spots would be supported by local transmitters, dead reckoning and on-board CCTV systems.
Figure 3. The economic value of a “green” agrarian revolution would be massive.
Wake up sleepy Britain!
We have been lobbying for the British development of robot tractors for the last ten years.
But, while Britain has been sleeping, our
manufacturing competitors have taken the lead.
Figure 4. A robot tractor working the vines in France.
A three year plan for Britain to catch up
A new company is registered.
A small team of engineers and
technicians construct prototype robo tractors and remote plant diagnostic
technology. Agricultural expertise from (say) The University of Central
Lancashire is enlisted.
Crowd sourcing and a public relations campaign attracts shareholder investment from parties wishing to demonstrate their “green” credentials.
innovate UK research and development funding applied for.
Digital landscape modeling to determine the optimum shape and size of the new fields begins.
The work force increases. Farm scale field trials begin.
Commercial production begins.
A long term approach to combined agriculture and forestry
Woodlands also offer good flood water control properties and can be planted on land unsuitable for flood reduction agriculture. Inferior quality mature wood that cannot be sold for profit could be converted into biochar and ploughed back into the agricultural land, further improving soil quality.
Archaeological excavations suggest that biochar can trap carbon in the soil for over a thousand years. So, instead of recycling waste paper we should,
(i) Use it to create biochar to improve the water holding capacity of farm soils and,
(ii) Manufacture replacement paper using wood from sustainable forests that capture carbon from the atmosphere as the trees grow.
For an excellent summary of the wider aspects of robotic farming visit:
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