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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, converting our manufacturing skills related to high technology warfare into knowhow for saving the planet. This may be necessary to protect our defense industry jobs in the BREXIT era.

 

 

 

Aims

1.                    To use battlefield technology as the basis for a 'green' agrarian revolution.

2.                    To create new jobs for defense industry employees threatened by BREXIT.

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 harvesting took place in 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 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 a cherry picker that doubled up as a 'tractor cabin'. 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 nature than an indoor factory. The first generation of robo tractors will probably require two operatives, one overseeing operations from the "tractor cabin", the other, troubleshooting in the field.

 

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.

Wildlife corridors
Some of the field margins will be used as human tourist traffic routes but the bulk will be untilled strips of land that act as wildlife corridors.

 

What the rural community will gain

 

 

[Data source: “Red squirrel could vanish in 20 years,” page 13, Sunday Times News Section, 25 September 2011.]

Rural tourism generates approximately sixteen times as much income as farming.
But, big field farming reduces the tourist attraction of the countryside.

Robo farming could change this.
As a bonus, it would reduce the vulnerability of farmers to the whims of nature, from climate change to foot and mouth disease.

Meeting people is one of the joys of tourism. Our proposal illustrates how using artificial intelligence to change farming can create new jobs for humans in the tourism industry.

 

 

Long term benefits for BAE Systems & other defense companies
The purchasing cycle for their new agricultural products would be out of phase with military hardware markets. Some staff could float between companies to maximise productivity and security of employment.

 

 

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.

 

The solution

Revert to traditional European 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.

 

Benefits

  • The elimination of a conventional front and rear to the tractors, as defined by the driver’s seating position, would allow the use of innovative tractor-implement couplings, reducing turning circles. The new, smaller tractors would also be lighter, reducing soil compaction.
  • The radically new designs would offer good opportunities for BAE Systems to gain strong patent protection. This would provide long term security against foreign competition for jobs.
  • GPS guided robo-tractors will be able to follow curved paths, allowing furrows to be ploughed and hedges to be planted parallel to the contours. This will reduce soil erosion and the rate of rain water runoff.
  • 'Small' field systems would allow the environmental benefits of crop rotation and companion plants to be brought to industrial scale agriculture.
  • Research demonstrates that leaving field margins increases bio-diversity. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S000632070100252X
  • During our recent wet summers crops have suffered while slugs have thrived. Slug eating beetles are also thriving, but they need  sheltered field margins to bread.
  • The increased organic content of richer soils would lock in significant quantities of carbon dioxide.
  • In critical flood water donating agricultural areas, the crop rotations could be arranged so that at least one field in any direction of water runoff was always in an optimum condition for catching and retaining the rain water.
  • During red flood alerts deep furrows could be ploughed into pastures and fallow fields at right angles to the fall line. This would improve the water holding capacity of the land.

  • The extensive use of drainage ditches could keep agricultural land water table levels low between flood alerts. But water retention gates would need to be added, to minimise run off into local rivers during flood alerts.

  • Robo-tractor usage logged against GPS verified coordinates will allow the collection of data on diseases/pests and agricultural trends. This will aid agricultural planning and reduce the administration costs associated with claiming agricultural grants.
  • The hedge margins used by the robo-tractors could form the basis for a European network of separated horse riding, off-road cycling and walking tracks. This would generate new tourism businesses in rural areas. (One lesson we learned from the 2001 UK Foot and Mouth outbreak was that tourism generated more rural income than farming.)
  • Mobility buggies based on the robo-tractor design would allow disabled people to enjoy exploring the whole of the new network of off-road cycle routes.
  • A comprehensive network of hedges across lowland Europe would create migration corridors, assisting small animals, insects and some plants to move in response to climate change.
  • On steep grazing hillsides, where conventional tractors would be unstable, low centre of gravity robo-tractors could be used for thrashing bracken. This would increase grazing pasture and reduce the risk of Lyme’s disease from ticks that hide in bracken.
  • Meat production would increase, without a corresponding increase in carbon footprint.
  • Some of today’s computer games players will become tomorrow’s farmers. Adapting to the new technology will be 'child’s play.'
  • New rural tourism opportunities would reduce the financial stresses and social  isolation commonly suffered by farmers.
  • Increased public access to environmentally friendly farms will strengthen the loyalty of customers to farm shops that sell locally produced food.
  • Groups of farmers would consult with interested parties and then club together to dedicate routes across their land. In return, they would receive financial assistance to buy new robo-farming machinery.
  • The increase in UK population is causing an urban expansion that is nibbling away at the green belts surrounding our cities. Our proposals will offset this damage by increasing the leisure and environmental value of the residual agricultural land in the green belts.
  • Across Europe a network of green travel routes could be created 'From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic.'

     

 

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.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2209975/Meet-Wall-Ye-The-French-grape-picking-robot-work-day-night--vineyard-workers-job.html

 

Figure 4. A robot tractor working the vines in France.

During the early years it is relatively easy for companies to gain patents to protect a new technology. Britain must move fast in order to grab its share of the intellectual property.

 

A three year plan for Britain to catch up

Year 1

A new company is registered.
BAE Systems & other defense companies permit the use of their intellectual property in return for shares.

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.
(This University is close to an area where many BAE redundancies have been made.)

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.

Year 2

The work force increases. Farm scale field trials begin.

Marketing campaign
To stimulate interest among young farmers, robo farming computer simulation games are released. Feedback from the players is used to improve design.

Year 3

Commercial production begins.

Marketing campaign
"Level three" game players are allowed remote access to real robot tractors via the internet.

 

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:

http://www.nesta.org.uk/blog/precision-agriculture-separating-wheat-chaff

 

 

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