Technology is already revolutionising farming, and its contribution will make the future industry look very different indeed. Digital tractors are at the forefront of the changes and whilst there still needs to be someone in the cab to control the vehicle, GPS technology and automatic steering have enabled farmers to get maximum yields, thanks to the increased ability to make the most efficient use of the land.
The technology also allows farmers to continue working in adverse conditions. Where, in the past, visibility needed to be good to allow them to see what they were doing, digital technology enables them to continue working in dark, foggy and even stormy conditions that would normally prevent activity.
In 2017, Researchers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire brought the future a step nearer by successfully planting, tending and harvesting a crop of barley using only automated machinery. The Hands Free Hectare project adapted farm equipment by the use of open source programming, with the addition of drones, in order “to autonomously sow, grow, and harvest a cereal crop without a human entering the trial area”. They intend to use the harvested crop to make Hands Free Hectare beer!
The project has resulted in successful harvests of spring and winter barley, and researchers are now working on improvements in the hope of getting more competitive yields. The project has gained a lot of press attention and is a finalist in the BBC Farming Today Future Food Awards.
Whilst the increased use of technology sounds worrying in terms of replacing humans on the farm, researchers on the project believe it will attract new skills into farming, telling one publication: “It has also allowed us to raise the perception of agriculture to the public, so they see it as a forward-thinking industry and something that might attract new people to the industry.”
They believe that in the future, instead of the huge combines that are required now in order to do the job quickly will be replaced by smaller, more lightweight, autonomous machinery that will allow farmers to concentrate on other areas of their farm. Only time will tell.
It also remains to be seen how driverless tractors will change the needs of signage on farms, though we suspect that warning messages will need to be given to farm workers and members of the public to let them know when such machinery is in use.