Alison Richards, Scientist in HSE’s Foresight Centre, considers how emerging challenges such as population growth, diminishing natural resources, climate change and environmental pollution might be addressed by technological solutions, possibly making the farm of the future very different from what we see today.
Labour saving devices such as robotic harvesters, mechanical fruit pickers, weeding machines and robotic milking parlours are already enabling today’s farmers to become more resource efficient. Farm animals can be monitored remotely using wireless sensor technologies (worn in a collar or ingested into the stomach) that transmit location and health data.
Drones can now carry highly sophisticated cameras that allow the continuous observation of crop health. Sensors can measure temperature and moisture in soil, allowing timely and targeted application of water, fertilisers and pesticides. And fields can be ploughed by automomous vehicles guided by sensors, geolocation data (information that can be used to identify something’s physical location) and Cloud- based software.
The data collected by all of these different sensors around the farm can now be stored remotely and accessed via the internet, enabling instant connectivity across all elements of farm management and therefore facilitating faster and better-informed decision making.
Looking further ahead: future farming and the Internet of Things
Developments in automation and the Internet of Things (IoT)* are likely to have a signficant impact on farming, and the arrival of 5G will boost this. 5G is the next generation of communications networks that will offer greatly enhanced speed and capacity. This has the potential to lead to a massive increase in IoT connected devices, enabling connection to ubiquitous high speed networks and more efficient gathering and transmission of actionable data.
Increased automation over the next five years is anticipated, leading to: the harvesting of more types of crops by robotic ‘pickers’; targeted irrigation of crops according to weather data; regional tracking of disease transmission and improved pest management. This could enable the more effective use and conservation of resources and efficiency savings.
It may be that, in the future, farmers will be able to harvest their crops, plough their fields, apply crop teatments and check on animal health using any device, from any location, at any time they choose.
*Internet of Things: the interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.
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