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The 21st century farm

14 July 2017

Ever wondered what the farm of the future would look like? William Barne, a Director at Lycetts, talks drones and autonomous vehicles.

William Barne, a Director at Lycetts

Agricultural practices will need to continue to develop and become more efficient, if the findings of recent research pieces are anything to go by. For instance, PwC has reported on expert views that agricultural consumption will need to increase by close to 70 percent by 2050 to account for the world’s growing population - projected to hit nine billion people in the same year. While not as high, the World Bank has predicted that those across the globe will need to produce 50 percent more food by 2050 should global population continue to rise at its current pace.

Fortunately, technology is constantly advancing, with various developments being made to aid the agricultural industry. Two main areas of interest are that of drones and autonomous vehicles - this guide sets out how each could assist farmers in the future.

Farming drones

Drones have become a very lucrative market, with global market revenue from the sales of such gadgets expected to increase by 34 percent to reach over £4.8 million in 2017. US technology research experts Gartner has also predicted that drone production figures will jump by 39 percent this year compared to the numbers recorded in 2016.

They offer numerous benefits for those in agriculture. Here are a few reasons why:

They can be used for planting

Drones can take the stress out of planting and looking after produce, thanks to systems which have been created by start-up companies that can achieve an uptake rate of 75 percent and reduce the costs of planting by as much as 85 percent. The idea is that the technology sees drones shooting pods with seeds as well as plant nutrients into the soil, enabling plants to receive the nutrients they need to sustain life.

They can make the most of irrigation

To avoid wasting water around a farm, drones can be fitted with remote sensing equipment - think multispectral, hyperspectral or thermal sensing systems. The idea is that the technology will quickly and easily identify the driest sections of a field and then allow farmers to allocate their water resources more economically.

They can be used to spray and monitor crops

Crop spraying and crop monitoring are two practices that many in agriculture will already be very familiar with. However, drones can improve both of these common practices.

In regards to crop spraying, drones can effectively scan the ground of a farm and then spray the correct amount of liquid once the distance from the ground has been modulated - even coverage will be achieved while the amount of chemicals penetrated into groundwater will be reduced.

When it comes to crop monitoring, time-series animations through the drones will be able to display the exact development of a crop and detail any inefficiencies with production. These kinds of insights would have previously only been gained by satellite imagery - while very advanced, this technique could only be used once a day. Monitoring through drones can be used whenever a farmer wishes.

Autonomous farm vehicles

Just like drones, the market for autonomous vehicles is looking very bright. In fact, a comprehensive report by Business Insider Intelligence has forecasted that there will be close to 10 million cars available which will have either semi-autonomous or fully autonomous capabilities. From a more general perspective, management consulting firm Bain has estimated that the global opportunity for assistive and autonomous technologies for the business-to-business market will be somewhere in the range of $22 to $26 billion per year by 2025.

Steps have already been made to showcase how autonomous vehicles can assist those in agriculture. For instance, a team of agricultural engineers from the Harper Adams University in Shropshire have set about creating an autonomous tractor which can perform tasks like the drilling, seeding and spraying of land while being steered by a farmer who is positioned not behind the vehicle’s wheel but in a control room. The same team - made up of Johnathan Gill, Kit Franklin and Martin Abell - are also looking into how an automated combine harvester can be used to then harvest the same field.

Explaining the potential benefits of the developments, Mr Franklin told the Daily Mail: “These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.

“The tractor driver won't be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.”

Meanwhile in the Burgundy region of France, inventor Christophe Millot has been successful in creating a vine-pruning robot. Developed as a counter to a shortage in farm labour, the latest-generation model of the four-wheeled gadget is made up of six cameras, two arms and a tablet computer found inside the robot. These features combine in a way that the machine can learn as it goes about its task so to trim grass around each vine with a cut every five seconds.

The importance of insuring farm equipment

No matter if you choose to invest in farming drones and autonomous farm vehicles, or continue with tried-and-tested techniques in agriculture, it is important to ensure that the equipment is insured to avoid unexpected surprises from costing landowners and farmers dearly. Farm insurance from an insurance broker like Lycetts will give land owners and farmers peace of mind, as options are available to provide cover for everything from buildings and produce to machinery and office contents. 

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