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Posted: September 03, 2013

Game of drones: Swarmbots instead of tractors

The day is coming

Thomas Frey

When Guttenberg first converted a wine press into his first crude printing press, it never crossed his mind that each of the letters he was carefully carving from wood would some day be generated with far more accuracy through super tiny dots, known as pixels. 

When Michelangelo spent four years meticulously carving his famous statue of “David” out of solid marble, he had no idea that we’d some day be able to use 3D printers to “print” a replica of his statue, one dot at a time, in hours rather than years.

Similarly, it’s difficult to imagine a 20-ton tractor being replaced with swarms of flying drones. But that is exactly what will happen over time.

“Swarmbots” is a term to describe a grouping of robots that work together like a school of fish or a flock of birds.

The first iteration of tractor-replacing swarmbots will be ground-based drones, with dozens of them working together to do the work of today’s large tractors. Over time, as energy sources change and equipment improves, many of the ground-based units will be replaced with flying ones to reduce interference with soil and plants.

Much of the work in this industry will evolve around the following tree phases of development.

Phase 1 – Data Drones

Most of the drones today are focused on developing better information about the plants, soil, and growing conditions. This information will allow farmers to be more aware of crop conditions and make better decisions. 

Phase 2 – Protection Drones

Some companies are already working on Phase 2 drones capable of proactively protecting the crops from bugs, birds, disease, and other unwanted problems. Some of these capabilities will include:

  • Prevent birds from destroying high value crops
  • Identify insects, worms, and other unwanted plant devastation
  • Precision pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide application
  • Detect and track plant disease
  • Identify and thwart other wildlife that may consume or damage crops

Over time, protection drones may even be able to compensate for extreme weather conditions by applying warm foam during freezing conditions and even using wave frequencies to disrupt hail and other extreme weather conditions. 

Eventually there will be flying drones with lasers mounted on them. Because of the possible dangers, their use will be highly restricted, at least for the most powerful ones. However, it’s entirely possible to visualize a type of drone capable of breaking rocks, killing pests, and even shooting mosquitoes.

Much of today’s work in this area is experimental and sounds more like science fiction than real science, but in a few years they may already be in use. 

Phase 3 – Seeding, Harvesting Drones

Robotics researchers at the National Agricultural Research Center in Tsukuba, Japan have already experimented with rice-planting robots. And American farmers already ride semi-automatic tractors that use GPS positioning to plant perfect rows of wheat.

Another form of robotic seeding machine is being created by David Dorhout, founder of Dorhout R&D. His autonomous five-legged “Prospero” robot can move around in swarms with the ability to detect ideal planting spots, digging holes, planting the seeds and then applying fertilizer or herbicides. 

As prices improve for specialty crops, farmers will invest heavily in automation to meet whatever unique foods consumers are demanding.

Over time, flying swarmbots will replace the ground-based drones, with thousands of tiny machines working in concert to replace the need for today’s massive pieces of equipment. Keep in mind that this will only happen if they provide farmers with a significant advantage over today’s equipment. They will need to be better, faster, cheaper, more efficient, or all of the above.

Final Thoughts

recent study by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) predicts that in a matter of years, the drone, or UAV, industry in the U.S. could produce up to 100,000 new jobs and add $82 billion in economic activity between 2015 and 2025.

Aerial drones are about to become an everyday part of our lives. This is an industry in its infancy and agriculture will be the launch point and proving ground for many others.

Farmers will become thousands of times more precise in how they apply chemicals and fertilizers, saving themselves millions in the process.

Saving farmers 1 percent on inputs like herbicide and pesticide, and increasing their yields by 1 percent, that alone is a multi-billion dollar industry.

In the end, the world will grow far more food, to far more exacting quality standards, under virtually any weather conditions. And drones will be an essential part of making this happen.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

And someday we'll be able to carry around a telephone wherever we go. Wait...you're kidding...we already have those? So I'm not prescient? By Michael Rolland on 2013 09 03
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