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Six amazing inventions which could transform farming in the next 20 years

PUBLISHED: 11:48 21 February 2019 | UPDATED: 13:16 21 February 2019

A prototype crop monitoring robot developed by the Small Robot Company, which is one of the case studies in the NFU Future of Food 2040 report. Picture: Small Robot Company.

A prototype crop monitoring robot developed by the Small Robot Company, which is one of the case studies in the NFU Future of Food 2040 report. Picture: Small Robot Company.

Small Robot Company

From agribots and driverless tractors to nanosensors and virtual livestock fences, here are six hi-tech innovations predicted to revolutionise farming in the next 20 years.

Dr Vishuu Mohan at the University of Essex is working with Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree to develop a prototype robot to pick strawberries for the jam-making business. The Essex firm is one of the case studies in the NFU Future of Food 2040 report. Picture: Vicky PassinghamDr Vishuu Mohan at the University of Essex is working with Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree to develop a prototype robot to pick strawberries for the jam-making business. The Essex firm is one of the case studies in the NFU Future of Food 2040 report. Picture: Vicky Passingham

The Future of Food 2040 report, produced by the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), looks at how changing technological and consumer trends could affect what we will be eating in the coming years – and how it will be produced.

Technological advances predicted by the report include:

• Agribots: The global revenue for agricultural robotics is estimated to grow from $3bn in 2015 to $73.9bn in 2024, with inventions like crop care and fruit-picking robots potentially able to replace manual jobs and create greater efficiencies. Robotics will also have a growing role in the livestock sector for milking and feeding – and even in abattoirs.

• Driverless tractors will become smaller and lighter, removing traditional tramlines and help reduce soil compaction. 24/7 operations will be possible, with fears about noise and light pollution allayed through night vision and quiet electric engines.

Aerial drones have huge untapped potential for crop sensing and mapping, says the NFU Future of Food report. Picture: Sonya DuncanAerial drones have huge untapped potential for crop sensing and mapping, says the NFU Future of Food report. Picture: Sonya Duncan

• Nanosensors will be able to collect an array of information from all parts of the farm, such as soil data and water status. Sensors linked to smart applications will be able to send out alerts and reduce daily routine jobs such as checking fuel levels and temperatures.

• Quantum technologies could offer “game-changing opportunities” for precision agriculture. Quantum sensing and measurement would allow the mapping of invisible underground features, including different soil types and water resources, through the detection of minute differences in gravity.

• Solar powered drones capable of staying airborne for days and capturing real-time information on pests and weather are one example of the “huge untapped potential” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for crop sensing and mapping.

• Intelligent ear tags with built-in sensors will be routinely used by the livestock sector to allow earlier warning of any potential health issues as well as real-time monitoring of weight and fertility. Sensors may also be used to remotely manage grazing and act like “virtual electric fences” to reduce overgrazing of certain areas or avoid sensitive soils and watercourses.

The Dino autonomous weeding robot was trialled for the first time in the UK at a farm in Breckland last year. Pictured: Prag Mistry of Agricultural Innovations with the machine. Picture: Chris Hill.The Dino autonomous weeding robot was trialled for the first time in the UK at a farm in Breckland last year. Pictured: Prag Mistry of Agricultural Innovations with the machine. Picture: Chris Hill.

READ MORE: Crop-spraying drone offers glimpse into farming’s future

In the field of crop science, the report says the use of biotechnology in food production will be “ubiquitous” in 20 years, particularly through genome editing to breed plants with enhanced disease resistance, stress tolerance, improved feed conversion rates and better nutritional content.

And while there are “unlikely to be dramatic changes in our diet” over the next 20 years, the report says the health agenda will grow, along with a demand for more diverse diets.

Innovations in this area could mean that “in-vitro meat and insect protein may well grow in popularity depending on advances making these protein sources more palatable, and the ability for them to be produced cost-effectively at scale,” its says.

And it says emerging technology around the 3D printing of food may see new business pop-ups carrying out “micro-fabrication based on new flexible production techniques”.

EAST FARMING LEADERS WANT SUPPORT FOR INNOVATION

The report is intended as a “catalyst for debate” on the importance of establishing a domestic agricultural policy that enables the farming industry to increase its productivity, profitability and resilience.

NFU East Anglia regional director Rachel Carrington said: “Agriculture is a progressive and forward looking industry and farmers in East Anglia have always been quick to adopt new technology.

“Our farmers already utilise satellite-guided tractors, drones to survey crops and soil structures, probes to monitor moisture in fields and robots in glasshouses. However, there are still many jobs that have to be done by hand and cannot be replaced by technology, at least in the short-term.

“This report provides an exciting glimpse of the future, but, to get there, it is crucial that farm businesses are not only given the support they need to survive and thrive now, but they start to plan and prepare for the challenges and opportunities ahead.”

READ MORE: ‘World-first’ farming robot takes centre stage at Agri-Tech Week

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East, welcomed the encouragement of new technologies to improve farm productivity and resource protection, but said it was also “vital to establish the business case for farmers and growers.”

“We would like to see a process for independent evaluation of the return on investment,” she said.

“We agree, as stated in the report, that innovation needs to meet regulatory approval, but also understand that this can be problematic if the science is progressing ahead of the regulators. We would recommend creating advisory panels that include scientists and technologists as this would be beneficial to all.”

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