Arguably, the most vital science known to civilization is that of agriculture. Even at its most primitive stages, society could not exist without a source of food for those in it. Likewise, cultures with the most accessibility to food historically tend to be the most prosperous. Given this plight, farming has always been a key area for the focus of scientific advancement, from Roman aqueducts to horse-driven plows. The high-tech 21st century is no exception, and moreover poses an unparalleled need for agricultural innovation.
With a global population of 7.5 billion people and rising, the farming industry must modernize not only to provide sustenance on such a scale, but also to do so economically. Opportunely, various means of improving the farming system are on the rise, most conforming to a field typically referred to as automated agriculture. Automated agriculture encompasses a hybrid of computer automation, robotics, and the traditional agrarian lifestyle, with the aspiration of increasing food availability while decreasing the cost of production.
The exact origins of automated agriculture are debatable, as some remotely controlled farming systems, such as automatic sprinklers, have been utilized for generations. The notion of automated agriculture as a standalone enterprise nonetheless began when manufacturing legend John Deere publicly released its AutoTrac tractor guidance system in 2002, the first commercially available GPS setup of its kind. This rudimentary system allowed for the automated planting and harvesting of fields based on predefined coordinate paths, though still required some manual command from a driver, and was scarcely as precise as desired.
In spite of its imperfections, the AutoTrac was a massive success and would go on to refine its ability to operate a tractor with little to no human control. Through the AutoTrac, Deere had begun popularizing the craft of precision agriculture (or precision ag), a term first coined to encompass the fusion of information technology and agriculture. In the years following, precision ag would grow exponentially, establishing new methods to automate duties that were previously burdensome and time consuming. Mechanization would eventually become commonplace for irrigation, soil analysis, application of nutrients (known as Variable Rate Farming), yield assessment, and countless other tasks critical to farm management.
Although the rapid realization of farming mechanization was unquestionably game changing, full-fledged automation had yet to be reached – that is, until the introduction of smart technology. Devices such as iPhones and tablets would finally give farmers a means of operating advanced systems in a convenient, all-in-one format that would at last give birth to true automated agriculture.
The scope of automated agriculture has since gone far beyond its inception of using smart technology to optimize machinery. Rather, it’s now seeking to turn machinery itself into smart technology. At the forefront of this mission is the ongoing development of what is possibly automated agriculture’s most ambitious project yet: the autonomous tractor. A member of the up-and-coming family of autonomous vehicles, these tractors could further revolutionize the trade by removing the need for manual tractor operation in its entirety.
The usual big names such as John Deere and Case IH are particularly invested in this idea, delivering promises in recent years that fully autonomous tractors are on the near horizon. However, despite much promotion, there remains no sign of industry leaders releasing robotic tractors any time soon. This of course does not imply that autonomous tractors are completely out of reach, in large part due to the budding agricultural company Smart Ag and their flagship product AutoCart. Debuted at the 2018 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, AutoCart intends to deliver the first fully functioning autonomous tractor technology to the consumer market.
AutoCart is not a tractor in itself, but rather a system to modify preexisting equipment for complete automation. The mean unit price is set at $37,500, and those who placed the first available pre-orders in late 2018 should expect to receive theirs by the spring of 2019. As idealistic as the autonomous tractor may be, the concept has yet to face the ultimate test of what leverage it currently has to offer to the average farmer, leaving the future of the driverless tractor currently unclear.
Traditional farms, while having been responsible for devising automated agriculture, are not alone in enjoying the rewards of such innovations: in an ironic turn of events, automated agriculture would become responsible for enabling the rapid growth of indoor farming. Indoor farming, as its name implies, involves agricultural production in an indoor, and often urban, environment.
As farmlands far and wide reaped the benefits of precision agriculture, and eventually automated agriculture, these same technologies were being modified to raise crops in closets, garages, and warehouses. Predictably, the early days of modern indoor farming were often focused on the marijuana trade; however, it was not long before its larger potential for agricultural advancement was realized. Indoor farms are now producing food at quantities that may have them competing with conventional farms in the near future. Furthermore, the employment of automation gives indoor farming an indispensible advantage in that every component of the process can be automated, some of which, including light exposure and climate, are fundamentally uncontrollable in an outdoor setting. With such prospects for growth and sustainability, regardless of evolving outdoor equipment such as autonomous tractors, the automated future of agriculture could very well be enclosed in walls rather than sprawling across plains.
Farming is an ancient industry, one that has undergone innumerable changes for millennia, always in the interest in allowing for food to become more abundant and affordable. These adaptations and innovations are undeniably always tied to the steady progression of humankind and how it chooses to organize itself. Much like how breakthroughs during the industrial revolution allowed for the development of the plow, it seems that the computer era has found its analogue in automated agriculture. Farms are becoming more efficient thanks to automated technologies like robotics and GPS, enabling substantial quantities of crops to be produced at unprecedentedly decreased costs and labor. Amidst these current renovations are the looming future of automated agriculture: the inevitability of autonomous tractors and large-scale indoor farms. While the total supply of food on Earth remains relatively limited, the debut of automated agriculture indicates a great deal of both advancement and hope in the future of food production.