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    Robots on farms. Drones in the sky. Could this be the future of British farming?

    NewsFriday 10 January 2014
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    The 2014 Oxford Farming Conference, which took place earlier this week, heard that the future of Britain’s farming industry could be made far easier with the help of robots (not robots that reseble R2D2 - pictured). 
     
    Yes, even though visions of robots patrolling the Great British countryside seemed far in the future, it is actually not as far away as we may believe. 
     
    According to the Guardian, an increasing number of “farmbots” are currently being developed that are able to carry out the ‘finicky and complex’ tasks that have not been possible with the large-scale agricultural machinery of the past. 
     
    These developments can bring efficiencies and benefits, according to farmers and the government, whilst also bringing an end to some of the most back-breaking jobs around the farm. 
     
    One example that was brought up at the conference was the “lettuce bot”, which is capable of hoeing away the ground weeds from around the base of the plants. There is also a “wine bot” that trundles through the vineyards pruning away at the vines. 
     
    There are also a number of other robots that are currently under development, which are capable of remotely checking crops for their growth, moisture and also for signs of disease. 
     
    The secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs, Owen Paterson, embraced the prospect of robot farmers, at the conference this week. He said: "I want our farmers and food producers to have access to the widest possible range of technologies, from new applications of robotics and sensor technology to new LED lighting in greenhouses and cancer-fighting broccoli."
     
    The government has, for the first time ever, set out an “agri-tech” strategy, that is receiving £160m in public funding. Out of this funding, around £70m will go into commercialising the new agricultural technologies, which includes the robots, and the remaining £90m will be spent on setting up centres for agricultural innovation, which will seek to develop farm technology for export. This will be made possible with the help of a new unit within UK Trade and Investment. 
     
    Paterson even went on to state that there will even be a new “agri-tech business ambassador”. This individual will be charged with driving forward the exports of these new technologies. 
     
    As well as robots roaming the countryside along the ground, new developments have also led to unmanned air vehicles, or drones, being used on farms.  In South America, with its vast ranches, drones are being used for the surveillance of widely dispersed herds and crop monitoring, and in Japan smaller models are programmed to spray pesticide on crops. In the US, there are experiments under way to use drones for surveillance and perhaps even herding.
     
    What with UK farms being smaller and easier to manage on the ground, there is less scope for drones to be used. And, there will also be safety concerns about their usage. 
     
    Also speaking at the conference was Peter Kendall, the president of the National Farmers Union. He said that technology had been vital in raising farm productivity and that this would continue with more “futuristic” appliances such as robots, being developed. 
     
    He pointed out that automated "robotic" milking machines are becoming increasingly common on large dairy farms. These can milk many cows at a time, sometimes on a revolving platform that lifts the cows to the milking station. Some research has been carried out that has shown that this procedure could be better for the cows, whilst also improving yield. 
     
    Kendall said: "The use of unmanned robots is rather more futuristic but people are working on it. As well as field operations, there is potential in fruit harvesting and even livestock management. It is certainly an exciting time to be involved in farming."
     
    The use of robots on farms was, however, met with some scepticism. The head of policy at the Soil Association, Emma Hockridge, said: "The potential use of robots on farms has been discussed for years, but we haven't yet seen anything practical close to reaching the market."
     
    Whilst farm bosses could look forward towards the opportunity to replace seasonal workers with robots, farm workers may be far less keen. Hockridge also spoke about this saying that the government and farmers should concentrate on the better use of existing technologies. 
     
    "In food and farming, which is now our biggest manufacturing industry, we think the priority should be creating more and good quality meaningful jobs. Organic farms provide almost 50% more jobs per hectare and over 30% more jobs than non-organic farms," she said. 
     
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