Robots, Roombas and Self-Driving Tractors

Meet Today’s Farm Tech

If you haven’t been paying attention to agriculture lately, you might envision the farmer as a guardian of the past, steeped obstinately in tradition. But food production today is filled with innovative projects — weed-recognition technology, for instance, or self-driving tractors or farms inside shipping containers. Here’s a round-up of some of Modern Farmer’s favorite tech stories:

1. Roomba for weeds? A team of two Stanford-trained engineers is currently developing a weed-killing machine called ‘The Lettuce Bot,’ which Gloria Dawson describes as a ‘Roomba for Weeds’. As the Lettuce Bot moves along rows of lettuce, it scans the soil for weeds and lettuce plants growing too closely together. On locating such unwanted growths, it kills them with a steady stream of fertilizer.

Jorge Heraud, one of the engineers behind the Lettuce Bot explains: “What we’re talking about is bringing technology that is a little bit different: electronics, computers, cameras, and sophisticated algorithms. We want to find different applications for that. Weeding is done now by a combination of genetically modified crops and herbicides that kill everything except the plants that have been genetically modified. So we wanted to bring an alternative to that and have a solution that is scalable, affordable and doesn’t rely on genetically modified crops.”

2. Move over Google, here are self-driving tractors. When Terry Anderson, founder of Autonomous Tractor Company (ATC), presented The Spirit last fall at a farm machinery exposition, the attendees’ response was overwhelmingly positive. The self-driving tractor does not use GPS technology, but rather relies on radar and ground-based transponders that line the farmland’s perimeter. If the machine deviates from its course, even by inches, it stops immediately. Although investors have not yet committed enough capital to support the commercial development of the Spirit - there are currently two in existence - Terry Anderson is confident that it is only a matter of time before the tractor will become available on a larger scale.

3. The latest tech? Texting. Farmers are increasingly turning to tablets and texting in order to communicate and connect directly with producers and consumers around the world. Through WeFarm, farmers can locate peers who are familiar with their crops and climates and use the texting service to exchange advice.

Meanwhile, in places like Malawi, mango farmers are using tablet software to register their produce. During the harvest, these farmers can track, with exact precision, the time and date of cultivation as well as the fruit yield from each tree.

4. A farm that fits in a shipping container. Jonathan Friedman and Brad McNamara are trying to diminish the relevance of climate and location to agriculture through the establishment of Freight Farms. By adapting the technology used for hydroponic weed growers to the systems they have devised for shipping containers, they have given those in areas, which are not traditionally conducive to agriculture, the tools and space to grow their own produce — regardless of geographical constraints.

5. Beehives of the future. Apiarists — or beekeepers, colloquially — have recently undertaken significant efforts to increase the efficiency of urban beehives. Five designs, created by students and professionals from Australia, Israel, and the United States, are especially cutting-edge. From the ‘Elevator B,’ a bee-sized skyscraper, to the ‘ToBee’ model, in which bees can build their honeycomb and exit through an ‘escape tube,’ these designs all have one thing in common: the intersection of slick aesthetics with enhanced productivity.