Friday, December 27, 2013
Robots working on Norfolk’s farms could become an everyday reality within a few years, according to a leading expert.
James Szabo, who has travelled the world investigating technological advances in agriculture as part of a year-long Nuffield Scholarship, will make his predictions for the future at the Norfolk Farming Conference on February 20. Delegates at the John Innes Conference Centre, in Norwich, will be told how different types of robots are likely to play a key role on farms, improving crop yields and saving labour.
After studying electrical and electronic engineering at Leeds University, Mr Szabo, 29, joined York-based Precision Decisions, a precision farming-focused company that has been involved in the development and marketing of such tools as auto-steer systems for tractors and sensors that can determine crop health and apply just the right amount of nitrogen fertiliser.
While these technologies are now common in farming, his Nuffield Scholarship work became a worldwide journey into an even more hi-tech future.
At Parma university in Italy, he looked at pioneering work in developing autonomous vehicles that had reached the stage of a trial journey from Rome to Shanghai undertaken without any driver intervention.
“It’s using cheap hardware. You could buy all the parts from PC World for £2,500,” he said.
And, at universities in Germany, he examined advanced work in developing self-driving tractors that include the technology to identify weeds and apply exactly the right level of chemical spray and to determine the health and development level of the crop and decide on the right level of nitrogen fertiliser.
In Sweden, he saw robotic milking parlours capable of being used on a much bigger commercial scale than those currently available.
His visit to Australia showed how effective robots could be on massive, remote farms and his research in Japan showed their application in a country where the average field size was one acre.
Mr Szabo, who has just joined global farming technology firm Trimble Navigation, said: “There has been a real focus on developing robotics in Japan. While we are faced with an ageing demographic on farms in the UK it is even more pronounced there where the average age of farmers is 73 and they are reaching the point of having no farmers. There is therefore a real push for technologies that allow a single young farmer to look after a greater area.”
Looking ahead, Mr Szabo said there were no technological limitations to stop many of these appliances being widely used within five to 10 years. But caution from insurance companies and people making policies was likely to slow the pace.
However, he said: “Within a short time, there are likely to be lots of scouting robots being used on farms to scan crops.”
The size of a golf kart, they were likely to be quickly accepted as they were not capable of doing much damage in the case of a collision.
The next stage would be scaling up the robots to ones with sensors to assess crop health and the ability to apply exact levels of fertiliser and chemicals.
Tucked away on Pottergate is one of Norwich’s best kept secrets, but it might not stay that way for long.