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Slashdot Asks: Will Farming Be Fully Automated in the Future? (bbc.com) 278

BBC has a report today in which, citing several financial institutions and analysts, it claims that in the not-too-distant future, our fields could be tilled, sown, tended and harvested entirely by fleets of co-operating autonomous machines by land and air. An excerpt from the article: Driverless tractors that can follow pre-programmed routes are already being deployed at large farms around the world. Drones are buzzing over fields assessing crop health and soil conditions. Ground sensors are monitoring the amount of water and nutrients in the soil, triggering irrigation and fertilizer applications. And in Japan, the world's first entirely automated lettuce farm is due for launch next year. The future of farming is automated. The World Bank says we'll need to produce 50% more food by 2050 if the global population continues to rise at its current pace. But the effects of climate change could see crop yields falling by more than a quarter. So autonomous tractors, ground-based sensors, flying drones and enclosed hydroponic farms could all help farmers produce more food, more sustainably at lower cost.What are your thoughts on this?
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Slashdot Asks: Will Farming Be Fully Automated in the Future?

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  • by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:13AM (#53357755)

    It's history has been.

    From the first farmer to invent something to do more work with less they've been 'automating' it away in bits and pieces for hundreds of years.

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      Automating tasks in farming got us the agricultural revolution necessary for the industrialization to begin with. Without automatized farming, 90% of the population would still be needed to feed us all.
  • by Ramze ( 640788 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:17AM (#53357771)

    With the upcoming AI/robotic revolution, the relevant question would be - what won't be fully automated?

  • Just remember one thing: plants crave for electrolytes.
  • by guruevi ( 827432 ) <evi@@@evcircuits...com> on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:20AM (#53357791) Homepage

    Yes, off course it will continue to be automated. The question is, at what point is it 'fully automated' and at what point is our entire food chain being run by a singularity (is there a difference?). People will continue to be necessary (at least for the foreseeable time) to fix the machines and make it do things.

    Farms are no longer being run by 'stupid farmers' with their farmhands and maids, even a smallish sized farm (in developed countries at least) these days requires agricultural, mechanical, electrical and computer engineers. Even fruit farms (apple farms etc) genetically engineer their trees to be smaller and lower to the ground so they're easier to pick mechanically.

    • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:57AM (#53357913)

      The question is, at what point is it 'fully automated' and at what point is our entire food chain being run by a singularity (is there a difference?).

      Yes, I think there's a difference. You need a lot of advanced robotics and mechanical systems in place, but the control mechanisms don't need to be "intelligent" (if that's what you mean by a "singularity"). They just need to know enough to run the machines and tend to the crops. Those systems will be very specialized, and will in turn need human specialists to manage them. And when those systems need maintenance or repairing, it's still going to be a person that does it, albeit with a lot of sophisticated hardware and software at their disposal.

      • by BlueStrat ( 756137 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @05:16AM (#53358663)

        They just need to know enough to run the machines and tend to the crops.

        Farming encompasses a lot more than crops of various fruits, plants, and trees.

        Cows (meat & milk). Pigs. Chickens (meat & eggs).

        Chickens may not be that big a problem, but cows and pigs are relatively intelligent (for farm animals, especially pigs) and even have emotions. Farmers often must 'comfort' a cow when giving birth, sometimes pigs as well. I don't think 'farmbot' will 'comfort' them much, likely the opposite.

        Animals are also surprisingly adept at finding places to escape or otherwise get into places they shouldn't be. Animals can be unpredictable, something machines are not good at...adapting to unpredictable new situations, circumstances, and conditions.

        I can see automation of growing/harvesting field crops occurring even now, but meat & dairy animals pose a whole different and much more complex set of requirements and will require much more sophisticated systems. I think a partial-automation is all that can be achieved in the near future regarding food-animals, full automation may be quite a ways down the timeline.

        Strat

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          I don't know, I watched a neighbor help birth a lamb. It wasn't so much "comforting" as it was "grabbing and pulling".

          It'd be neat to see if drones start taking more of a role in roundups as they get cheaper and flight times longer. The annual sheep roundups here are big events involving tons of people going through the mountains looking for sheep, then surrounding them and driving them back. On the other hand, I don't think people would want it to become too automated; they're big community events, an a

        • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @07:29AM (#53359073)

          The dairy industry is already highly automated. The modern cow carousel [youtube.com] was originally designed in the 1930s, so this isn't anything new. Nowadays, with robotics systems [youtube.com], you don't even need humans to hook the cows up for milking.

          So, while I agree that managing animals will always require some human interaction and supervision, the day to day operations are becoming more and more automated. It's no different than other farming operations, letting fewer farmers produce more for less.

        • by hipp5 ( 1635263 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @08:35AM (#53359315)
          That assumes we're going to be farming animals in the future. Researchers are working on "growing" meat from stem cells. If they get to the point where it's scalable, I imagine we'll transition quickly to such an approach. Why feed a whole cow when you can just feed the steak?
    • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

      Will anything happen in the future, given enough future sure. So how far forward do they want to go, logically the growing and harvesting of fully genetically modified algae. Don't even think about soylent green, fully customised super foods, high in required trace elements, very low in allergens and designer made to suit taste and texture requirements, any combination they can imagine, hmm, fruity strawberry steaks, banana custard melons, fresh mint chocolate milk from the vine. Eating a dead animal, with

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Part of the problem with algae farming for food is the same as for fuel: infrastructure costs. Crops, you just plant them in soil. Algae farms require tanks. 100% perfectly enclosed and monitored tanks if you want them to remain that perfectly engineered single-species type that gives you your optimal food production.

        Algae also has a lot of water to drive off. Getting rid of water is a big expense even for crops that aren't grown literally swimming around in it. For example, field corn.

    • People are not required to fix machines now.

      We rarely fix machines any more.

      Machines are not built to be fixed. They are built to be replaced.

      Quality machines are built to be modularly replaced which is trivial.

      Given a robotic truck, robotic forklift, and a good SLA, humans are optional and likely to be remote observation at best.
      ---

      Design new machines yes-- but that's 2 to even 3 orders of magnitude lower labor requirements.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      People will want to do those jobs, rather than have them automated. Eventually we will get to the point where most people don't have to work, but do so voluntarily just to fill their time. In fact you can already buy games like Farming Simulator.

      • Can I perhaps guess you haven't worked on a real farm for a full week? Every single manual task is designed to be the limit for a healthy person, for example grain is hefted in 50 kg (112 lb) sacks. How many 50 kg sacks can you shift in a day? great cos that is your job. Those neat little straw bales are about 15 kg (33lb), you need to stack 40 of those so the hydraulic clamp can pick them up. Now there are some reasonably cruisy bits, sitting in a tractor listening to the radio while ploughing or whatever

        • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

          People would let machines do the hard manual labour, leaving the fun stuff to themselves. People do things like fruit picking as a leisure activity already.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Do you still use hand-sized bales of hay over there? Here in Iceland at least all hay production I've ever encountered is fully automated and makes these huge wrapped bales that you have to use trucks to haul around.

        • Can I perhaps guess you haven't worked on a real farm for a full week? Every single manual task is designed to be the limit for a healthy person, for example grain is hefted in 50 kg (112 lb) sacks. How many 50 kg sacks can you shift in a day? great cos that is your job. Those neat little straw bales are about 15 kg (33lb), you need to stack 40 of those so the hydraulic clamp can pick them up. Now there are some reasonably cruisy bits, sitting in a tractor listening to the radio while ploughing or whatever. That is of course the easiest job to automate.

          People pay good money to go to the gym to shift heavy weights around. As long as there were reasonable health and safety precautions, I can imagine people happily volunteering to do a few hours of manual labour outside in the fresh air instead.

          And if you're not a weightlifter type, half a day walking around herding sheep or whatever is more fun that slogging it out on an indoor treadmill.

    • by Sique ( 173459 )
      Even fruit farms (apple farms etc) genetically engineer their trees to be smaller and lower to the ground so they're easier to pick mechanically.

      You don't genetically engineer apple trees for that. You just cut them at the desired height, and you bind the branches along steel struts or other structures. That's something farmers do since at least 2500 years.

      • It's (kind of) both. It is true that a lot of pruning and training goes into getting fruit trees to be the desired shape, but there is also a genetic component. Trees which have been bred to be short (and usually also cold tolerant & disease resistant) are used as rootstocks for a lot of fruit trees, with the above ground portion that produces the fruit being grafted onto those roots. The end result is dwarf trees that are easier to work with. True, this isn't genetic engineering, but it is a bit mo

    • by bytesex ( 112972 )

      Hm... maids...

    • I think the bigger question is what value does a human have beyond their utility and what will they do when they don't need to do anything.
  • Yes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rgbe ( 310525 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:26AM (#53357805)
    And there is the opensource https://farmbot.io/ [farmbot.io]
  • But with the current state of robotics, primarily on the software side, that is not going to happen in the next few decades. Software still mostly sucks at elementary tasks, complex planning tasks like running a farm on both the microscopic and the macroscopic level are wayyyy out of reach at this time. Eventually, all these tasks will be within reach though, and then automation will become cheaper and, more importantly, far more effective than human beings. I think we might see working demonstrations (typi

  • Yes (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ChromeAeonium ( 1026952 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @12:27AM (#53357815)

    The ultimate thing about farming is that it is not easy. Harvesting of fruits and vegetables, in particular, is long, hard, laborious work. As economies develop, there's going to be less people wanting to do that for the prices consumers want to pay. Mechanized harvesting is already employed in a lot of agronomic crops (corn, rice, wheat, soy, ect) and some horticultural crops. The difficulty is going to be getting machines that are able to tell when to pick, how to pick, and how to avoid damaging the crop. Some things might still have to be done by hand (pruning of tree fruit, which is an art and a science, comes to mind), but in general, mechanized agriculture will be the future, and I think that's a good thing.

    • Several fruits and vegetables have market ready robotic solutions now.

      They are cheaper than 3rd world labor so even if willing a human literally couldn't make enough to eat for a month's labor much less house and cloth themselves.

  • Convert the technology to 3D stacked compact hydroponic indoor units powered by fusion reactors 24/7 and stack them up to 3 miles deep. Keep the worlds farm acreage and get 5,000-10,000x or more the food supply. Boost the cities into uninhabited areas not farmed with densities greater than New York or Tokyo.

    Step 3
    Boost the worlds population to 40 trillion.
  • Truckers first, farmers second. Accelerated de-population of red states might stave off the planned dystopia.
  • It exists already. It costs much less than if done by a manned aircraft, it's more precise, done at a lesser altitude. And it produces less toxic exhaust, less noise which harms birds, bees, and other wild life.

    An UAV can fly fully automated above fields. And if fluids are manufactured in containers, even refilling can be easily automated, reducing an operator's exposure to zero. Let alone that UAV can supply remote farms with necessities.

    I hope that the new administration will remove as it had promis
    • I don't want the drones to spray chemicals, I want swarms of them to squash the bugs and pull the weeds out one by one! The only thing we should be spraying on fields is fertilizer!
      • by Max_W ( 812974 )
        I did not mean spaying with chemicals. There is already spraying with ecological bio substances. But it still requires spaying anyway.
      • Yes, exactly. It won't be long before we have cheap robots that can work 24/7 and recharge themselves like Roombas. They can be constantly measuring soil properties, pulling weeds, killing individual pests and constantly update a map of the individual state of ripeness of everything on the farm. This will allow some very intensive use of the land, including no-till agriculture, interspersing complementary crops to minimize soil damage, etc. Basically the robots will have the luxury of babying every square m
  • I'm still waiting for that flying car I was promised in the 1960s.

    Farming isn't planting a seed and jumping out of the way before it sprouts and knocks your eye out. Things like market conditions, projected harvests, government regulations (try planting cotton without letting the USDA know about it!), how a field drains, where the culverts have a habit of overflowing, and heck, what field the boys around will ride their ATVs in or their families make an impromptu road though change the factors in how a fiel

    • Remember that 60's sci-fi vision of the future where computers were giant video screens that communicated to you in spoken English? I've got an Amazon Echo, a Google Home, a chromecast, and a 4K TV... I realized the other day that we're finally there!
  • Except the ones off fighting the robots/singularity/aliens/zombies/vampires/GMO rabbits, or whoever it was that apocalypsized us.

  • One thought I keep having: when robotics gets really cheap, wouldn't using robots instead of chemicals to kill weeds, insects, and rodents be a lot more ecological and safe?
  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @02:11AM (#53358109)
    A nice little anecdote in one of the "Science of Discworld" books was about barbarians coming in and conquering places, having to run a society and then finding out that for some odd reason farmers got incredibly pissed off being allocated random blocks of dirt as if there was some difference between farming different places. The Normans hit that situation in England and a massive famine in the USSR in the 1920s can be blamed directly on an insane allocation of resources by people who knew nothing about agriculture but did not care.

    This automation question is a clueless barbarian versus generations of farmers question. Accountant versus Engineer is a parallel situation.
    We are the barbarians - we don't fucking know. It all looks easy to us from the outside. An agricultural scientist could answer this in a few specific cases but we can't.


    "How would you automate tasks you can fully understand?" is a good question - this one is not. It's Popular Mechanics 1950s hype that somehow made it past an editor or maybe thrown in to "shake us up" to see if we can get a townies versus rural argument going.
  • Of course not (Score:5, Interesting)

    by blindseer ( 891256 ) <blindseerNO@SPAMearthlink.net> on Friday November 25, 2016 @02:15AM (#53358127)

    Farming is a business and while driving a tractor is part of the job it is actually a very small part of it. I grew up on a farm and while younger I had a view of what Dad did as largely that of driving a tractor because that is mostly what I saw him do during the summer. As I got older I realized what made the difference between a successful farmer and a not so successful one. What farming is about is managing resources.

    One resource is money. Decisions have to be made on what needs to be bought, what kind, how much, at what price, etc. Land needs to be managed. What crops should be planted in a field, what variety, how much fertilizer, what kind of herbicide, etc. Tractors, buildings, and other assets need to be repaired or replaced.

    There is a long process to planting a field that starts when the harvest is over. Contracts for fertilizer and seed need to be negotiated and signed. Equipment from the harvest need to be stored in the sheds for the winter, and in a way to make them easily accessible for the planting. If there is a business case for a new piece of equipment this needs to be done in the fall and winter, because once the spring planting starts its real hard to find time to stop and shop for a new tractor.

    A similar process takes place for the harvest. Weeks before the crops are due to be harvested the combine needs to be checked out, fired up, lubed, and if anything is found broken then parts need to be ordered. The corn dryer will also need to be checked out, it will be fired up, any frayed wiring replaced, motors lubricated, augers put in place, fuel ordered, and contracts for selling the harvest negotiated and signed.

    People might automate the tractor driving but that's what farmers do for fun.

    • 100% Correct (Score:5, Informative)

      by Pollux ( 102520 ) <speterNO@SPAMtedata.net.eg> on Friday November 25, 2016 @09:37AM (#53359579) Journal

      And to add to the money side, there's banking, human resources (many farms use hired hands), filing and redeeming crop insurance...

      The parent post best describes what farms currently are. My mom and dad can both talk about what it used to be like growing up on a farm; waking up at 5am, feeding livestock, cleaning pens, milking cows, their dads fixing the tractor and equipment, tilling, plowing, seeding, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting...and lots and lots of praying for good weather and a good harvest. But most of all, it was always a roller-coaster ride of two or three really good years, maybe including a boom year, followed by some break-even years, maybe including a few bust years, with never a guarantee that any year could make them money.

      Those "family farm" days are disappearing. Farm sizes are growing, and the number of farmers are shrinking. [usda.gov] But that's not to say that families still don't own their farms. [washingtonpost.com] Crops aren't rotated nearly as frequently. Livestock aren't kept on the side and graze the fields. Machines and automation have evolved, and farms now focus on one or two crops (or livestock) with greater efficiency. Farms have changed from labor-intensive diversified endeavors to an efficient, business-intensive farm.

      My grandpa managed a 120-acre farm. Farmers around where I live talk about how they manage their 1,000+ acre farms. Automated machinery will just make these farms grow even larger and make it easier for farmers to own and farm more land.

    • Summary/TFA says:

      The World Bank says we'll need to produce 50% more food by 2050 if the global population continues to rise at its current pace.

      The problem with that premise is, population growth in developed nations is nearly non-existent [iiea.com]. Several developed nations are even shrinking in population (e.g. Japan, Portugul, Spain [wikipedia.org]).

      Nearly all of the world's population growth is in developing nations, where subsistence farmers are being put out of business by food imports from developed nations (either bou

      • We don't need to produce 50% more food by 2050 when we're throwing out so much food today. In the developing countries it's mainly because of a lack of storage and refrigeration causing the wastage. There is also the problem of getting the food to market before it spoils. If the proper investments can be made to help those problems then the farmers will be better off, people will be able to get more food, and all done without more land and chemicals.

        Yes we are going to have to produce more food in the fu

  • The vegetables will be fully responsible for growing themselves. When fully grown they will walk to the truck and slice themselves up, ready to serve.

  • Wait, we're talking about Diablo III, right?
  • What would the farmers do, instead?

    If the proposed model doesn't include something besides "well they can go on the dole, or into the forced-labour workfare force", it's likely shit. Megacorporations (i.e. mono- and duopolies) having all the farmbots isn't actually desirable from an economics perspective.

  • It will become very automated, but there will still need to be some degree of human involvement, just like every other industry that has had the absolute shit automated out of it... which is to say just about all of them.

    The question of whether or not [industry] will be mostly automated isn't the one we should be asking, because the answer is that it inevitably will be. The question we should be asking is "what is to become of all the people no longer needed to do these jobs?", or better yet "should getting

  • The assumption is always that the human population will continue to grow as it has in the past, and that we will always have enough resources to do so; both of which are unlikely, in my view. The following will seem very gloomy, I know, but I am actually optimistic about humanity - I think we can solve our problems, I just think people are being hopelessly naive about the prospect of continuing the current lifestyle, as well as terribly unimaginative and to be honest, lacking in self-confidence, when it com

  • You're not going to see an overnight conversion. A job gets automated here; a job gets automated there; etc, etc. It all adds up. And it's been going on a long while. One one occasion Krushchev visited an American farm in the 1960's during a trip to the USA. He remarked that the American farm was run by 11 people. Meanwhile, a Russian commune with the same acreage needed 11,000 people. That was over 50 years ago.

    Farming has already been mechanized/automated to a large extent, and the "low-hanging fruit", i.

  • by seoras ( 147590 ) on Friday November 25, 2016 @05:10AM (#53358647)

    I grew up on a farm, after 20 years of city life I've returned to farm living. I'm a meat eater, I milk my own cow, got egg laying hens, grow most of my own food etc.
    That's just to frame what I'm about to say which might sound like I'm a vegan.

    If you've actually looked at the state of the creatures you are either eating, or consuming by products from, you'll see some real misery.
    It's horrible. As a kid we had battery hens and mass produced eggs in addition to cattle for beef/milk. Not something I'm proud of.

    There's no scientific basis for what I'm about to suggest, flame away, but I'd rather eat of/from something that had a happy life than something that lived a short miserable existence.
    Why? "You are what you eat".
    I'd like to see research to see if there's a correlation between quality of life of our "food", and the mood and well being of the consumer.
    It's just a suggestion, I make no claims that it eating "happy food", makes you happy.

    Now given the state of mainstream farming today, and how industrialised it's become already, the thought of it becoming even more cold, automated and processed without any human compassion or thought involved is enough to make me consider to the tofu.

  • I had a book as kid that was published in the very late 60's or early 70's that was all about The Future. It covered a pretty broad base and by and large is panning out nicely - big flat screen TVs, working from home, automating medical analysis etc. On farming, it had robot vehicles being computer controlled with the 'farmer' sitting in front of a bank of screens monitoring it all.
  • A lot of work is going into fruit-picking robots. This is the only part of the job which cannot currently be done by a machine. Not damaging the fruit is currently too hard for a robot, but they're almost there. The robot can also use laser spectroscopy to determine when food is ripe, which makes it potentially superior to a human; humans can also do that with an external device, but it will take them longer.

    When picking can be done cost-effectively by robots, the amount of human labor in agriculture will d

  • ...Zynga needs eyeballs.

Is a computer language with goto's totally Wirth-less?

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