A capacity audience at AHDB Horticulture's SmartAg conference in Birmingham last week heard how technological advances in a range of disciplines, including engineering, manufacturing and even medicine, now offer a wide choice of ways to make growing more efficient.
AHDB director of horticulture Bill Parker, who provided the event's summary, said: "The intention of the conference was to bring in a broad range of people from outside of agriculture and horticulture in order to highlight the technology that's out there with a potential application to farming, and to get people thinking about how to incorporate it."
He added: "There is a tremendous amount of very interesting things going on in robotics, in sensors and in managing and accessing data. Everyone thinks it will come to farming - the question is how quickly and where do you start? Right now we're still scoping out the questions that we need to answer. At AHDB we are at the start of formulating a strategy on this - not in terms of particular problems, but in its impact on farming overall. That means thinking what growing systems will look like from 10 years out - it's a long-term game, but that's where the gains lie."
The event included a lively debate on whether field data should be made freely available. "It raises a number of questions including intellectual property," said Parker. "Is it better to put everything out there? Does that move the whole thing on faster, to everyone's benefit?"
Delivering the event's keynote speech, Professor Salah Sukkarieh, director of research and innovation at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics, said robotic systems capable of pruning, thinning, harvesting, mowing, spraying and weeding are already addressing agricultural needs in Australia.
Sukkarieh and his team are also working on ground-based robots that operate with unmanned aerial vehicles ("drones") in orchards, he said. "Now we can buy things like this off the shelf, the interest is in what type of sensors we can put on board and what we can do with that data."
He added: "Over the next five years we'll start to see more and more robots on the farm, giving us greater crop intelligence for the grower and ability to work on the crop autonomously."
Increasing demand from Asia has prompted the Australian government to set aggressive targets for food production increases, including raising exports by 45 per cent by the year 2025, Sukkarieh explained. "Because natural resources are limited, achieving such goals must involve increasing the efficiency of production while engaging in environmental stewardship, and contending with rising costs and diminishing availability of human labour," he explained.
To increase the event's carry over to the industry, Sukkarieh undertook a three-day tour presenting work he has done at vegetable supplier G's Fresh in Cambridgeshire at East Malling Research in Kent and at West Sussex specialist trainer Growtrain.
Parker added: "We are looking at how what Professor Sukkarieh has done in Australia might be demonstrated and applied in the UK, starting with simpler approaches at lower cost, to show the benefits of these technologies."