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Digital claimed to be future of agricultural machinery

Red Stag Media, a UK-based public relations and marketing agency devoted to agricultural-related businesses, has recently put together a report on the future of agricultural machinery which carries many insights and interesting ideas.

Naturally, reliance on its contacts within the industry has resulted in an enthusiastic endorsement of all the latest digital technology that is emerging.

However, there does remain a large question mark over its viability due to legislative delays, competing systems and consumer acceptance.

Missing feature

A key element of modern farming is the public perception of what is desirable. Within the report it is frequently noted that legislation has yet to catch up with what is now possible, however, the word ‘public’ does not actually appear in it at all.

The use of drones, for instance, as suggested in the report will see them flying above crops to both identify weeds and then spot spray them, all in one go.

It is said that the technology is already available and such devices cost no more than £10,000 (€11,300).

This would appear an excellent idea as it not only reduces chemical use but alleviates ground compaction and saves on the cost of labour and machinery.

However, there are tales from France of farmers being discouraged from conventional spraying during daylight hours due to the risk of protest from urban neighbours.

Whether they will be any more amenable to unmanned aerial vehicles brim-full of pesticides buzzing about the countryside is doubtful.

Control of agricultural machinery

It is envisaged that such drones will eventually be run from the farm office rather than have an operator in line of sight, as is presently required by law.

The optimistic assumption apparently being that a simple flick of a minister’s pen will allow this to happen overnight.

In the UK, it is the role of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to examine the safety of agricultural machinery and make recommendations to the government.

In the Republic of Ireland, it is the EU which plays that role and the legislation at present under consideration may not be as sympathetic as advocates of robotics might hope.

The use of drones is just one facet of the digital movement and it represents the corner of the ring that believes small is beautiful when it comes to growing crops; in the other corner stands the well established manufacturers of conventional machinery which are responding to the threat by adapting robotic principles in the design of their machines.

Yet, there is also the realisation that ever bigger machines may well not be the answer. David Redman, tractor specialist at New Holland, concedes that fleets of smaller tractors rather than a few large units may well be where the future lies.

Staff shortage drives automation

It is generally held that the main driver towards larger tractors is the cost and scarcity of trained staff; placing a computer under a bonnet rather than an operator behind the wheel should overcome this.

Yet, once again there is the legislative barrier and the reliance on artificial intelligence as a panacea for all the problems that arise may well be misplaced, as ensuring its predictability might not be as easy as once thought.

It is also noted by New Holland that the power of these smaller tractors may average around 60hp, which just happens to be the estimated maximum that is considered practical with battery-powered units.

Still a role for engines

This brings us to the debate that surrounds the use of alternative fuels and the management of farm energy for agricultural machinery.

Hydrogen and methane are the two fuels mentioned in addition to battery power, yet there are problems with hydrogen, which at present is mainly derived from fossil fuels, while green methane is but one way of recycling the carbon that is already out there in the atmosphere.

There is no mention of synthetic diesel which, like methane, recycles existing carbon.

The recent push by Germany and others, to keep it available as a fuel in the automotive sector suggests, according to one source in the industry, that it may well hold promise for the future.

Risks abound

Overall the report paints a rosy picture of a brave new technology orientated world of agricultural machinery and as a guide to how stakeholders in the machinery sector are looking to the future, it is indispensable, yet questions remain.

The lack of any reference to public sentiment has already been noted, likewise the omission of any mention of synthetic diesel. Then there is the shadow of Agriculture 4.0 in the background which is not once alluded to.

In addition, there is that great elephant in the room labelled security; this again is not touched upon in the report and it goes beyond preventing the installation of computer games on tractor consoles.

The idea that AI systems could be be nudged off the straight and narrow should not be discounted, while a solar storm or even nuclear explosion could wipe out the internet completely, rendering any notion of food security dead in the water.

There is much good that can be done through the application of digital technology, but we need to tread carefully.

Robots are here already. The Farmdroid is being imported into Ireland by IAM of Kilkenny


  • Brough HU15 2FW, UK
  • Red Stag Media