Former Engineers Ireland president Chris Horn on how satellites and drones are shaping the future of farming.

Last November, a jovial farmer called Nikolai introduced YouTubers to the future of farming. In heavily accented English, he proudly showed off androids and gadgets made by the (fictitious) Izhevsk Dynamics Corporation and fully funded by his government.

He tends drones in his pigeon coop, shows off a fractal cucumber in his greenhouse, while his QR code adorned cattle are herded by flying drones. A robotic dairymaid rejects his own advances to instead flirt with his tractor.

He appeals to human workers all over the world to come and join him in his provincial farm. You can find Nikolai on YouTube by searching for 'Russian cyberpunk farm'. 


Automated farming

Farming is certainly becoming more automated, and with a particular focus on precision. Satellites and drones can digitally identify crop health and soil conditions. GPS technology fitted to tractors can ensure an identical path across each field is precisely followed for tillage, planting and harvesting.

Robotic milking parlours are no longer unusual in Irish farms. Rather than the twice-daily routine of herding cattle into the milking shed and manually attaching the milking machine to udders, instead at her leisure a cow can come into a milking stall and be rewarded with an individualised grain ration while the machine finds her udders and milks her.

Some may view this as being lazy but it does reduce stress and frees the farmer up to work elsewhere.

Organic crop farming minimises spraying in favour of manual weeding. Because of the arduous work and costs then involved, a number of startups worldwide are innovating with autonomous robotic weeders

The vehicles are often relatively light and so can self-navigate up and down rows of young plants without damage. Onboard software is trained to visually detect both weeds and plant disease. While some machines spot-spray, others use a mechanical drill or an electric pulse to kill weeds.

The current experimental vehicles usually struggle with heavy soils and sloped ground, so it may be some time before they can be used on Irish farms.

Greenhouse farming may be a better opportunity for the nurturing of plants by robots to reduce labour costs. While greenhouses protect against inclement weather, if a plant disease or pest infects within a greenhouse it can quickly spread and destroy a crop.

The flat and relatively dry ground makes it much easier for roving vehicles to traverse than open fields, and trained onboard vision systems can quickly spot and monitor a disease outbreak.

One of the main challenges for indoor robotic systems is the metallic roof frames of greenhouses, which weaken and distort GPS signals used for precision navigation. Some systems instead use cables to suspend a robot to enable it to glide over the plants.

However the internal layout of a commercial greenhouse may change as crops are harvested and rotated, and cable systems then may require re-positioning.

Vertical farming

Indoor crop farming is also going vertical. A Utah cattle farm is conducting trials of an automated silo feed system, in which grass seed trays enter at the top of a tower and then slowly descend over six days, being watered under LED lighting. At the end of the cycle, each tray emerges at ground level where its tender young grass can be directly used as feed.

Each silo is about 10m in diameter, but is as productive as about 50 acres of grassland. The farm thus benefits from a predictable and continuous natural feed, and solves the challenge of unreliable weather or third-party suppliers.

While it uses only about 5% of the water that would be required by natural grassland, it does however require electricity to drive the tray conveyors and lighting.

Vertical crop farming is appearing directly in supermarkets. Several supermarkets across Europe are using technology from a Berlin-based startup to grow lettuce, shard and herbs, in-store in the customer aisles.

Each of the approximately 250,000 plants grown each month across several hundred locations, is individually monitored from Berlin and its environment remotely controlled by software.

A UK startup is promoting similar vertical salad crop production in-house to large corporates, to encourage employees to nurture and grow their own food in the workplace.

Nikolai’s farm may seem a little dystopian, but farming practices are changing as consumers seek even higher volumes, quality, and nutrition, and as labour costs, carbon footprints, antibiotic resistance, and environmental concerns grow.

Just why Nikolai is appealing worldwide for human company to join him on his farm is explained in the closing punchline of the parody. It becomes clear that his farm is, in fact, a Russian colonisation project on Mars.

The QR codes on Nikolai’s cows lead to the Twitter account of Dmitry Rogozin, the director general of Roscosmos, who has built an online following in part because of his occasional banter with Elon Musk of SpaceX.

Solving the technology challenges for automated food production for the moon, or indeed Mars, would no doubt have applicability for the rest of us here on Earth. 

This article first appeared in The Irish Times on March 11, 2021.

Author: Dr Chris Horn, former president of Engineers Ireland, is the co-founder, CEO and chairman of IONA Technologies, industry expert on Irish technology development, trends, and business. As an honorary Doctor of Science from Trinity College Dublin and former TCD lecturer in computer science, Dr Horn is at the forefront of the Irish high-tech debate.