Rethinking our farming system: swarm robots are key to unlocking a higher level of productivity and creativity in the farming industry. Our mindset as a farming industry has become constrained by the machinery we use. What are the benefits of a farming system led by small, smart machines?
Soil is one of the world’s most relied upon natural resources and it is also one of the most under discussed and undervalued.
Think about it; in the last year, how many articles did you read or conversations did you have about water or air pollution compared to articles about poor soil health?
Degrading soil health is much more difficult to notice and it does not have an immediately obvious negative impact on those of us who are not farmers, unlike bad quality water or air, so it commands much less attention.
This is a key question that we continually ask ourselves at Small Robot Company. We did not set out as a business to try to find the fastest way to make ourselves rich. We set out to create a really clear vision for the way that food production could and should be better than it is today and now we are trying to build the organisation that is going to make our vision a reality.
So what do we think is going to be true of the world and of the way we produce food in 2040?
1) Small, smart machines will have replaced tractors as the standard way of managing our soil to produce food
A predictable one for me to start on and central to the work that Small Robot Company is doing today. We believe that big, heavy tractors are no longer the best tools to manage the soil to produce food. It’s not that tractors are bad, just that technology has developed to the point where this is no longer the best way forward.
Using tractors in their current form is not the best way forward for the farmer because they are too expensive.
Using tractors is not the best way for the environment because they are too inaccurate and they necessitate too much waste.
Using tractors is not the best way forward for humanity because they are limiting the productivity of our major crops and we need an ongoing increase in productivity if we are to feed a growing global population.
It will take time for this new way of managing farms to become mainstream, but by 2040 this change will comfortably have taken place.
2) Your food will be produced by a different set of people and the industry will be led by a new set of businesses
The way that we think about our food and the way that we produce our food is about to be transformed.
One of the biggest transformations will be in the names and faces of the people doing the production. We believe that a growing number of farmers, the primary producers in our food chain, will be people who have not been born into it. It will probably not be a majority in twenty years’ time but it will be approaching one and the tipping point will be close in 2040.
This a huge change to the farming industry as it stands today and a big challenge to those farmers who are not alive to the changes that are happening in their industry. Equally, it is a huge opportunity for existing farmers who embrace this change and its implications.
As well as the primary producers, we believe that the biggest names in the food industry will be new companies, many of which do not exist today. The major machinery manufacturers, chemical producers, and integrators who dominate the industry today face going out of business by 2040 if they are not able to adapt their business models to thrive in this new future of food production.
3) The farm will have become a digital product, meaning that it will be possible to manage a farm with an extremely high level of accuracy without physically being there.
New hardware and software in the farming industry will enable a new way of looking at the farm. The farmer’s field will have truly become a series of 1s and 0s.
The digitisation of the farm will mean that the farmer will be able to explore far greater horizons of possibility in their careers.
No longer will they be required to physically live on or near their farms. They won’t even have to live in the same country.
Farming will become a much more meritocratic career and the best farmers will be able to remotely manage a farm anywhere in the world, whilst living wherever suits them and their families best.
4) Food production will be one of the sexiest, most exciting industries that you can work in and the most talented people in the world will be focusing their attention on this area of human life.
The food industry in its current form struggles to attract the best talent. Many roles within the food production industry are repetitive, menial and poorly compensated.
By 2040, a huge transformation will have taken place. The way we produce food will have become one of the most important and exciting areas to work in, and the most talented people in the world will devote their careers to solving these problems.
The most valuable and the most dynamic businesses in the world in 2040 will be food businesses, and they will be some of the most exciting places to work.
5) We will have largely moved away from farming animals for meat.
This is not central to Small Robot Company’s work, but it is something that we believe is an important ongoing trend which is going to continue to gather momentum and will ultimately have a significant impact on the future of food production because it indicates a growing need amongst consumers to feel connected to where their food comes from.
Veganism and vegetarianism will continue to grow and by 2040 it could be the norm. People will access their proteins from different sources. Lab grown meats will be being produced at scale and as soon as it is possible to affordably eat meat or meat substitutes, without having to kill an animal, the change will happen very quickly.
Algae production for protein is new industry with huge potential in this area.
And what will remain the same?
Jeff Bezos always likes to say that he spends much more time thinking about the things that will remain the same in the future, rather than the things that will change.
Here are three things that we think are here to stay for the long term.
We will still eat many of the staple foods that we eat today
Wheat, barley, oats, corn etc. will still form a key part of our diet in 2040.
We also think that we will continue to grow these crops in the open air with soil, hence our emphasis as a business on developing technologies which will preserve and improve soil health. Indoor and vertical farming will continue to grow in relevance and will play a key role in the development of some crops, but good soil will remain as a cornerstone of food production.
People will still want good quality, responsibly produced food; at an affordable price
Not only will people continue to want this, they will also expect to gradually pay less for their food as a percentage of their income over time and this trend will be more pronounced in developing countries. Those basing their future business strategy around a vague hope that people will be willing to pay more for their food need to have a serious re-think.
Trust will remain a central issue in food supply
The most valuable businesses in the future of food will be those which can create the greatest transparency in the food supply chain and, as a consequence, the greatest amount of trust between consumer and producer.
We'd love to hear your thoughts on what you think the future of food supply and production looks like - please do comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your views,
If you have ever used Airbnb you will understand the concept of Reputation Capital and its significance.
If you stay in a house or a flat through the Airbnb platform, you; as the guest, provide a rating to give an indication of the quality of the experience that the host has provided you with. However, what is interesting about this platform (and others like it) is that the host will also have an opportunity to rate you, as a guest.
Both sides of the market in this interaction have the opportunity to rate the other side. Your host has the power to either burnish or damage your reputation as a guest, just as you have the power to do the same to theirs.
Other platforms and marketplaces such as Uber and EBay use similar concepts. The intended outcome is to create an environment of trust in which it is easier for strangers to collaborate with each other for mutual gain. Most people want to continually achieve a good rating and thereby enhance their reputation capital.
Rachel Botsman has spoken about this in a really interesting Ted Talk which I highly recommend.
It is a fascinating example of capitalism in action in the Digital Age. Capitalism has always been a mechanism which enabled strangers to co-operate with each other and these digital platforms have enabled that to become explicit and conscious. Watching Rachel Botsman’s talk, I began to think about how this could be applied to farming once the operation of managing the soil to produce food becomes a truly digital process. I believe that digitisation could enable a future in which the reputation capital of the farmer is one of the most valuable aspects of the farm.
Blockchain will also play an important role in this. Once the farmer’s field becomes a truly digital product, we will be able to understand the field on a plant by plant basis. We will understand the health status of every single plant, know how that plant has been treated with chemicals or fertiliser, in specific amounts and with specific justifications for each treatment. We will be able to predict with a far higher degree of accuracy what the likely yield of that plant is as it grows, and we will be able to use blockchain technology to create complete traceability of an individual plant, maybe an individual grain, from field to store to processor to end user.
Ultimately blockchain will enable the disintermediation of the food supply chain, increasing transparency and shortening the distance between grower and consumer. This will represent a radical change in the industry and I believe a truly positive one for both farmer and consumer.
And this is where Reputation Capital becomes so important....
The farmer will be able to build up a reputation for their farming ethos, the way they make use of the new digital tools of the future (such as those being created by Small Robot Company) and the quality of their output.
The customer will be able to connect with farmers using a transparent platform and have a more direct say in where their food comes from.
They will say;
“I love the way Bob grows his wheat - I’m going to put my name down for a few square metres of Bob’s wheat to have my bread made from this year.”
“I’ve always loved Jane’s strawberries - I’m going to make sure I get some of those delivered to me for this weekend.”
Now in both of these instances, there will be an element of processing and packaging that takes place before it reaches the customer. Possibly this is something that the farmer has developed in-house or possibly it is something that they may use a third party for.
If the latter, then these processors and packagers will also be subject to the same market forces and the same reputation capital, both from customers and suppliers.
When the bread and the strawberries get delivered to the customer, the customer will provide a rating which hopefully enhances the reputation capital of the growers and the processor. Importantly, and fundamentally different to the market place in which farmers operate today, the growers will also be able to rate the customers and the processors for the quality of experience that they have provided.
When farming becomes a truly digitised industry, the way that the industry operates is going to change significantly.
In the future, a farmer’s reputation may become just as valuable to them as their land.
How do you think digitisation will change the way we manage our farms and think about where our food comes from?
We’d love to hear your thoughts - send us your comments to email@example.com and get involved in the discussion or comment below.
We know, as farmers, that we waste about 40% of the
fertiliser we apply to our crops....
How are we thinking about this problem? Are we doing enough as an industry in our current efforts to limit the damage of nitrogen pollution? Could technology in the form of new hardware and software provide a solution that radically reduces this problem for future generations?
In the video below, Small Robot Company's Co-Founder; Sam Watson Jones raises these questions - please do drop us a line or a comment with your thoughts on this....
This is a time of great challenge, but also great opportunity. Today at its annual Conference, the NFU launches its Future of Food 2040 report. Small Robot Company is honoured to be featured prominently as an example of the cutting-edge technologies that are already being developed.
The countryside has been designed to make existing farm machinery as efficient as possible. It has not been designed to make the plants as productive as possible, or to enable the natural environment to thrive as much as possible. The Digital Farm could change all of that.
When you travel through the countryside in your home country, do you ever stop to think how much of the way it looks is as a result of farm machinery? Of course, the type of farming changes with the landscape but there are very few rural areas in the developed world which are not, in some way, shaped by the machinery that we use to manage our farms.
It’s been a tremendous year for our small robots. Not even a year ago, we launched our Small Robot concept at an Oxford Farming Conference fringe event. Here, I introduced our Tom, Dick and Harry farming robots to the farming community. I unveiled our Farming as a Service concept, explaining how our robots will farm arable crops autonomously, with no waste.
We have made phenomenal progress. Today, we have three prototype robots, three patents pending and an AI that can already distinguish Wheat from Weeds. We are in trials in 20 farms across the UK, including the Waitrose Leckford Estate farm and The National Trust Wimpole Estate farm.
The Small Robot Company has partnered with the NFU for its awesome Farmvention competition, which aims to inspire young children into becoming interested in agriculture.
The competition also took a particular look at compaction issues, challenging children to design ‘tractors of the future’ and solve this problem. The perfect fit for us - we had to get involved!
It's been a really good innings for Small Robot Company news in recent weeks! Sharing these updates allows both the team and myself here at Small Robot Company, a very welcome opportunity to thank those of you that have supported us over the last few months and been so steadfastly behind the evolution of our 3 Small Robots!
A well run farm is a wonderful template for a good business, primarily because farmers care
deeply about what they do and are unrelentingly long term with their perspective.
If it were possible (or desirable) to use gene selection techniques to create a series of ideal business owners, people who would run good businesses in a responsible way that made the world a better place, you could do a lot worse than choosing many of the characteristics inherent to most farmers.
You are living on the edge of the greatest change that farming has ever seen.
If you have read some of my previous posts, you will have heard me mention the significance of digitisation.
Today, I even had the opportunity to speak on BBC Radio 5Live’s Wake Up to Money programme about it (click through on the link below - I am on at 20 mins into the programme)