Posted on January 15 2019
THE TIME IS RIPE FOR SMART FARMING
2019 will be a great year to be a farmer. 2019’s OFC got it right: this is a World of Opportunity for agriculture. We’re living on the edge of the greatest change that farming has ever seen. And there are a number of exciting British companies leading the way - Hummingbird, The Land App, Kissan Hub, Field Margin and Breedr - all helping create a new digital ecosystem. It’s certainly been an amazing journey for our Small Robots - we’ve made phenomenal progress this year.
We’re on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution. Robotics, artificial intelligence, drones, autonomous vehicles and blockchain: these are all elements of the ecosystem which will make up the Digital Farm. And these innovations will be mainstream within ten years.
There will be a period of co-existence and transition. However, ultimately we are looking here at exponential - and radical - change. We’re talking about the Digital Transformation of Agriculture.
Let’s take a look at what will this digital future could look like. How will it change the way a farm operates, and the way we even think about our farms? How will this journey map out? Arguably, farming is the last analogue industry. When one examines technology disruption in other sectors, there is a clear and consistent path. The ‘Moore’s Law’ theory of exponential growth and Peter Diamandis’ “6Ds of Tech Disruption” illuminate the potential direction.
How Digitisation Will Change Farming
Stage One: Digitisation in Farming
Too much technology in farming at the moment is focused purely on automation. Automation is important, and less disruptive, but it is only the very start of the process. The real objective is digitisation. Robotics and automation will turn our fields, our crops and our soil into digital products. They will become ones and zeros; and coupled with artificial intelligence, we will be able to analyse and take action on this basis. This will enable huge amounts of data to be analysed and understood, and for each plant to be cared for individually.
Stage Two: The Deceptive Growth of Digitisation in Farming
At first the number of farms using the services of Small Robot Company and companies like us will be small. The industry will barely notice as robotics and AI starts to solve small problems for individual farms and niche markets. However, the next farming revolution will be underway.
Stage Three: The Disruptive Growth of Digitisation in Farming
This is the point at which farming is going to change forever. Digital Farming will outperform existing farm management systems in terms of effectiveness and cost within ten years. The power of globally shared data will accelerate the change in what is possible on farm. Improvements in accuracy, in cost, and in efficiency will be phenomenal.
Stage Four: The Demonetisation of Digitisation in Farming
Now it becomes really interesting and somewhat more difficult to predict. It seems likely that this new wave of technologies will be offered to farmers through an “As A Service” model. Farmers will no longer need to own or maintain machinery, making it significantly cheaper to run a farm. The technology will get both cheaper and more powerful every year. Farms will simultaneously produce more food at less cost. The challenge here for farmers will be to move away from commoditisation and find ways to move up the value chain.
Stage Five: The Dematerialisation of Digitisation in Farming
Here the farm has become a fully digital product. The farmer no longer needs to own any physical machinery to do the majority of their in-field farm work. They can get a better understanding of crop health and soil quality by looking at an AI-driven software app than by being in the field. The physical location of the farm manager has become less relevant; the farm has become dematerialised. Farming could become a truly global profession in this version of the future, with the Digital Farmer able to manage crops on the other side of the world just as effectively as they can the crops outside their kitchen window.
Stage Six: The Democratisation of Digitisation in Farming
Ultimately, food production will become more democratic. The amount of land that we actively use to grow food may reduce. Vertical farming could take large elements of food production into the cities and the suburbs. It could even be that we produce our own food in our own homes to an exact calorie and nutrient specification, and that food is effectively created synthetically.
Even in that extreme version of the future of food consumption, farms can still be thriving businesses, even if those businesses look very different from today. The challenge for farmers today is to adopt an open mindset, so that they take the right decisions to embrace the future.
At Small Robot Company, we are working to create an entirely new farming model for sustainable food production. We’ve been speaking to a huge number of farmers over the last year. It is vital to ensure that, as we develop our technology - and a new way of thinking about and managing our farms - that we are “by farmers, for farmers”. We want to reduce farming’s impact on the environment and increase farm outputs globally. We know that heavy tractors damage soil, cause compaction which impedes plant growth, and necessitate ploughing, which in turn contributes to the loss of topsoil. And we’re overwhelmed at the enthusiasm and backing we’ve received from the farming community.
We’re now in the last day of our Crowdcube equity fundraising campaign, with our huge success very much fuelled by farmers. Thanks to their appetite for our Small Robot Revolution, we smashed our initial target within minutes, and are now at well over £1 million. We are extremely grateful, and thrilled that we’ll now be making this happen.
It’s potentially game-changing, and it feels very exciting to be on our way to making history, changing the way we farm forever. Small is for the Future.
By Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of Small Robot Company and fourth generation Shropshire farmer