By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant & Food Research
A world-first fleet of autonomous ‘farmbots’ are readying to launch in the UK. The bots scan, map, kill weeds and plant crops. Their boss, Wilma, converts gathered data into on-farm instructions. In 2017 Hands-Free Hectare, run out of Harper Adams University in the UK, tested the world’s first robotically-tended farm.
To feed the future global population, food systems need to be optimised for productivity and sustainability. Like other industries, digitisation is set to revolutionise the agri-food sector – from growing and packaging to consumption. Digitisation is also likely to accelerate as economies recover from COVID-19, driven off the growth of ecommerce and awareness of food security issues.
Digital technologies for the agri-food sector range from the simple to the complex, including farm machinery to reduce manual labour, image analysis to monitor growth and remote satellite data to spot disease. Sensing technologies will feature too, from monitoring the crop and environment in the field through to ensuring food quality and safety.
Precision agriculture will improve land, water and energy use and streamline inputs like fertiliser and pesticides. Imagine farms being monitored by drones taking on-farm images and samples. This information, coupled with GPS data, could enable growers to make management decisions remotely in real time.
Blockchain will alter the landscape too, with companies such as Nestlé and Unilever already on board. It will meet consumer demands for transparency in products and ingredients.
Consumers will also be served by big data, helping to capture insights faster to deliver food products with the attributes they want, guaranteed.
Digitally describing the entire food system, from producer to consumer, will enable us to trial new food systems digitally before they are tested on farm – a ‘digital model’ of a food system. This ability would allow us to develop novel food systems that are more sustainable and resilient to the challenges climate change might bring. A digital model that receives information from the real system to inform management decisions, becomes a fully functional ‘digital twin’. Like an autonomous car, the food system could then run itself. Add robots and, theoretically, no human interaction would be required.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.