Will robot feet in near-future time walk upon England’s mountains green? And will there be drones flying overhead from England’s pleasant pastures seen?
A new vision of robots patrolling the meadows and cornfields of the UK may seem dark and satanic to some, but according to farmers and the government it is the future, and will bring efficiencies and benefits, and an end to some of the most back-breaking jobs around the farm.
An increasing number of “farmbots” are being developed that are capable of finicky and complex tasks that have not been possible with the large-scale agricultural machinery of the past.
For instance, a “lettuce bot” is capable of hoeing away ground weeds from around the base of plants. A “wine bot” trundles through vineyards pruning vines. Other bots are under development to remotely check crops for their growth, moisture and signs of disease.
Owen Paterson, the secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, enthusiastically embraced the prospect at the Oxford Farming Conference this week, saying: “I want our farmers and food producers to have access to the widest possible range of technologies, from new applications of robotics and sensor technology to new LED lighting in greenhouses and cancer-fighting broccoli.”
The government has set out for the first time an “agri-tech” strategy, with £160m in public funding. Of this cash, about £70m will go to commercialising new agricultural technologies – including robots, and £90m will be spent on setting up centres for agricultural innovation that will seek to develop farm technology for export, with the help of a new unit within UK Trade and Investment. There will even be a new “agri-tech business ambassador”, Paterson boasted, charged with driving forward exports of new technologies.
It is not just on the ground that technology promises to transform farming. Unmanned air vehicles, or drones, are also coming into play on farms. In South America, with its vast ranches, drones are being used for the surveillance of widely dispersed herds and crop monitoring, and in Japan smaller models are programmed to spray pesticide on crops. In the US, there are experiments under way to use drones for surveillance and perhaps even herding.
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