The Autonomous Farmer

India is poised to become the world’s most populous nation in a few years, surpassing China (which is witnessing a steady drop in birth rates recently). The agricultural sector in India only accounts for 14% of its GDP but employs close to 50% of the country’s workforce and hence from a view of national income generation via employment, agriculture is very important. Currently, around 38% of total land surface is used for crop production and with degrading soil health and water scarcity, how do we ensure that we continue to feed and employ our burgeoning population?

‘Smart’ agriculture has an answer as we see a lot of technologies that are transforming industrial agriculture across the world. These new technologies leverage how human brain thinks, how humans learn, make decisions, and work while solving a problem, with intelligent software and systems that are fed with training data and these intelligent devices provide us with desired output for every valid input, just like the human brain. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the science behind making intelligent machines and its use in industrial farming has transformed today’s agriculture systems to a new level all together.  

How do these robots work and where?

Agriculture uses more than 70% of all global fresh water supplies, and yet 4 billion people live in global regions with water scarcity. By 2050, majority of world’s population will live in urban areas, and hence there is a need to lessen the burden on farmers, automate several agri-processes and provide farmers with comparatively easy and efficient farming methods. In India, weather plays a key role in agriculture, with short periods of drought and flooding combined with its unpredictability making it extremely hard to optimize water usage for irrigation.

This is where the robots come in.

Field robots are already being deployed to help farmers measure, map, and optimize water and irrigation use. Likewise, robots that use precision technologies to apply fertilizers and pesticides, automatic crop monitoring via drones, smart agricultural equipment are here to help that are backed by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Weeding Operations:

Weeds are the strongest competitors for water, they grow tall and block light for regular plants and it is estimated that India loses agricultural produce that is more than the government’s annual budgetary allocation for agriculture due to weeds . So, to remove weeds from fields is the greatest priority in farming. The table below shows a summary of agri-applications that benefit from robots, use AI algorithms for crops such as Rice, Sugarcane, Cotton etc.  

Drones in agriculture:

In precision agriculture, drones are a boon to farmers to see things that are not in the noticeable range. Drones are being implemented for irrigation equipment and crop health monitoring, weed identification, herd and wildlife monitoring, and disaster management to name a few. Equipped with sensors and micro-controllers, these un-manned vehicles have been extremely popular as substance sprayers with high precision. Read this scenario where manual spraying of fertilizers and pesticides in an acre of land takes 150 liters of water and when farmers use drones, the same job can be done with just with 10 liters of water.

Vertical farming:

Vertical farms can be installed in densely populated areas with minimal water consumption (up to 95% less water than traditional farming) providing year-long fresh and healthy food to millions of people. These farms are setup in a closed environment and use smart sensors to monitor temperature, CO2,oxygen,lighting, humidity, pest control etc. utilizing cameras, thermal imaging and AI technologies and have been highly effective in growing leafy greens, herbs, vegetables such as tomatoes, melons, sweet corn, peppers, cucumbers to name a few.

India is one of the most promising markets for vertical farming with a 29% growth rate and an increasing demand for organic products resulting in more companies and startups entering the vertical farming market each year.

Vertical Indoor Farming
Feasibility in Indian environment:

India has embraced robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) as solutions to several practical problems that are facing farmers today. Given the acute water shortage, risks associated with climate change and the good reason that new technologies would also help attract skilled workers and graduates to the sector, agriculture in India is being re-vamped.

But precision agriculture and robot-aided operations are happening in smaller farms. Prohibitive costs and limited real-world data that prove these methods work in large scale agriculture are main challenges. When farmers realize they can make more profit through more sustainable techniques and leveraging AI based tools would help reduce fertilizer and herbicide costs while improving the quality of land, keeping yield up, then adoption of these methods will increase exponentially. Government policies will boost adoption of AI technologies, but an increased demand from consumers like us for more sustainably produced agricultural products will drive farmers to embed latest technology in their daily work.

Published by Meena Iyer

Sustainability champion and naturally committed to support the cause of healing our planet impacted due to climate change.

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