As the human population continues to grow, the issue of food production continues to be of primary concern. In a bid to help farmers improve their crop yields, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has revealed its innovative new robot prototypes which are designed to inspect and feedback data on every plant in a field, one by one.
The robots look a little like a car wash in design, comprising a rectangular structure with pillars either side which allows them to roll through the fields without touching the plants or their surroundings. The goal of these robots is to help collate extensive information about exactly how crops grow so that this can be used to help improve crop yields in the future.
The actual brains behind the creation is X company, which is part of Alphabet. It was formed to create radical new technologies to help solve some of the world’s hardest problems. According to the company website, X company is ‘a diverse group of inventors and entrepreneurs who build and launch technologies that aim to improve the lives of millions, even billions, of people.’ The website reveals that their ultimate goal is 10x impact on the world’s most intractable problems, not just 10% improvement. X company is described as approaching projects with the ‘aspiration and riskiness of research with the speed and ambition of a startup’.
Speaking about the project on their blog, X company explains that the world’s population is expected to grow exponentially, with some reports suggesting that the 7.8 billion population in 2020 will grow to 8.6 billion by mid-2030, 9.8 billion by mid-2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. The current methods of food production are simply going to be able to sustain the populations of the future, and so there need to be some pretty significant changes in how we produce food in order to meet future demand. This is why the team has decided to focus their latest efforts on marrying technology with the agricultural sector to try and help solve this global conundrum.
Currently, farmers do not have detailed ways of understanding exactly what is contributing to the growth of individual plants, and so at best, blanket approaches are adopted which can help to improve the quality or quantity of the overall yield. But by drilling down to key factors influencing the development of each individual plant, much more data can be gathered to help really understand what is going on behind the scenes, in terms of both genetic and environmental factors.
Testing of the buggies has been underway for several years already, in strawberry fields in California and soybean fields in Illinois. The robots have been recording a host of information including high quality images of each plant, counting and classifying every berry and bean. In addition, the recording of other important factors has taken place such as the size of the fruit, the area of the leaf and the height of the plant. By inputting all of this rich data into a machine-learning system, it has been possible to start highlighting patterns or vital information which could help farmers to better understand the optimal conditions for crop growth.
The benefits of robots for the farming sector is evident given the struggles already faced by those who are battling to remain viable against a whole host of potential threats. Climate change and the devastation of natural habits has led to crops being devastated by everything from locust plagues to flooding. Obviously these kinds of threats can’t necessarily be avoided with technology, but it was pertinent to mention as it highlights just how fragile the industry is and how quickly things can take a turn for the worst.
The reality is that most farmers are already working to extremely tight margins and so any kind of savings or gains in efficiencies that they can make are likely to be warmly welcomed. Poor crop production can decimate a farmer’s income practically overnight and so helping them to better understand the contributing factors in crop development is certainly going to be beneficial.
That said, the question of data ownership and control has been raised, as there will naturally be a national interest at stake in understanding the trends associated with accelerated crop production. There is also the safety and security of the data too, as the farming industry can be extremely competitive and no farmer in the land is going to risk having their farm hijacked. The farming sector is likely to be reluctant to adopt any technology which could put their operation at jeopardy, whilst at the same time aware of the dangerous line they walk if they opt to continue as they are. Ultimately farmers know that something needs to change, and if they fail to do so, they run the risk of falling by the wayside.
Despite the promising prospects, Project Mineral is not likely to be available commercially any time soon. Reports suggest that trials are currently taking place with breeders and farmers in Argentina, Canada, South Africa and the United States.