FutureFarm and a Field of Robots

Laura McNamaraAudio, Equipment, Events, International, Research, Standards, University

Dr. Simon Blackmore, Founder and Managing Director of Unibots and Manager of FutureFarm.Dr. Simon Blackmore says he has his sights set on the future of agriculture. Not many could doubt that after considering the extensive breadth of research and development the world-renowned agriculturist continually applies to his work in precision farming.

Simon was a leading speaker at the 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture, sharing his expertise on two main fronts: FutureFarm and Unibots.

FutureFarm is a project that’s meant to conceptualize and then fully manifest the European Union’s ideas on the Farm of Tomorrow. As manager of FutureFarm, Simon says precision agriculture techniques are critical to the development of agriculture. He says FutureFarm is researching and conducting real-world tests of how precision agriculture is reshaping farming practices around the world. It’s a project, he says, that considers and studies integration of information systems, real-time management support, implications of biofuels, socio-economic impacts, the development of robotics and more.

FutureFarmUnibots is the brainchild of Simon himself. Simon is the founder and managing director of Unibots Ltd, a company that commercializes academic research in mobile outdoor robots. Robots, not men, make up most of the labor force in Simon’s vision of the future of agriculture. There are many factors, Simon says, that support the need for such a robotic future. He points out that current technology means farming machinery such as combines, sprayers and plows get bigger to increase output. But, Simon says that trend cannot continue. There will be a point where size gets to big to handle.

Instead, Simon says the ag industry needs to focus on developing more intelligent machines that are sensitive to plant needs. He says replacing large manned tractors with multiple, small intelligent machines would offer numerous advantages. The use of robots, he says, can provide opportunities to conduct operations that are not currently possible or that currently cost too much time and money. Robots can be designed to operate on low energy. They can target inputs intelligently. He says they are also cost effective through incremental investment and integrated fleet management – such as implementing longer working hours, increased working rates and intelligent response to weather. For example, he says robots can work through the night. Or, he adds, they can be programmed to stop working during rainfall or high wind, simply waiting to resume work on-site once weather conditions become optimal again.

UnibotsSimon isn’t dreaming all this up. His company has already developed robots that can intelligently work through the field, such as a cycloid weed hoe with retracting legs to avoid crop damage, notched disc weeding machines, autonomous tractors, remote controlled tractors, autonomous crop scouting with weed recognizing microsprayers and more.

The agriculturist says he is convinced that equipment will continue to become “smarter.” The industry, in his opinion, will continue improving the automatic control of well-defined tasks and automated data gathering. This, he says, will lead to improved data processing into real information. Simon says the possibility for fully autonomous vehicles with sensible behavior is entirely real and the opportunity for development is now. It’s time, he says, to begin designing and building a new, small and smart mechanization system.

You can listen to Simon give an overview of his extensive work here. I have also spoken with Simon on each topic in two separate interviews that will be posted in the near future.
Dr. Simon Blackmore speaks about FutureFarm and Unibots.