The future of farming is not to be found in further mass-industrialization nor in the return to traditional farming with man and horse power, but rather in swarms of smart, cheap robotic farmers that patiently seed, tend and harvest fields one plant at a time without the need for damaging pesticides.
Some 10.000 years ago our grand..grand..grand parents developed the luminous idea to plant crops and wait for them to grow, rather than just gather what was available in the environment. At that time, agriculture was a revolutionary new technique that changed the course of humanity. With the industrial revolution and the rise of mechanization, particularly in the form of the tractor, agriculture was intensified to output volumes of high-quality crops per land unit at what may be the practical limit.
In recent decades concerns have been raised over the sustainability of intensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture has become associated with decreased soil quality and there has been increased concern over the effects of fertilizers and pesticides on the environment, particularly as population increases and food demand expands. The monocultures typically used in intensive agriculture increase the number of pests, which are controlled through pesticides.
While a return to traditional, less mechanical, farming techniques is often seen as the solution to the issues cased by intensified agriculture, it is unclear how this could produce the quantities of food needed at an acceptable price. It might be more rewarding to take a progressive nostalgic approach, meaning that technology is refined to incorporate the good aspects of traditional farming. The swarming farmbot, Prospero, is doing just that.
David Dorhout currently works in the biotech industry, but his side project and passion for the last few years has been robotics. Built as the test platform for a larger robotic farming system, Prospero is just one of what will eventually become a swarm of planting, tending, and harvesting robots made to optimize every inch of arable space in a given field.
Prospero is a prototype for robotic organism that Dorhout is currently developing. Right now, he’s got a small fleet of six-legged robots capable of working together to optimize the planting of a given piece of farmland using swarm technology and software running game theory. The robots communicate with each other via infrared, marking places that have already been planted and signaling to each other when one needs help seeding a particular plot.
Prospero is just the beginning, Dorhout told Popsci.com. He aims to build a robot that can plant, maintain, and harvest an entire crop all autonomously and, more importantly, in the most efficient way possible. Swarms of Robo-farmers could work around the clock to help keep a field in optimal conditions, fighting pests and other invasive plants without chemicals and increasing both crop yield and crop health. His current six-legged robo-farmer is the first step in what might radically change our approach to agriculture. See Prospero in action, as well as Dorhout’s robo-centric vision of the future of farming, in the video below.