Digitisation could change farming forever

How Digitisation Could Change Farming Forever


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)




But why is Digitisation significant? Is it universally beneficial? In this article, I want to explain in more detail firstly why I think this will happen, and should happen, if farming is to find a better future for itself, and secondly how it could change farming and what farming might look like once it has become digitised. To be clear though, I feel very strongly that whether Small Robot Company is part of making this happen or not, I think this is the way that farming will go, so the task for farmers is to make sure they have adopted the right mindsets to take advantage.


For further context in what I am talking about below, please see Peter Diamandis’ “6Ds of Tech Disruption”, which informs much of my thinking in this area.

As many of you will be aware, in the 1960s Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, created “Moore’s Law” when he noticed that the number of transistors per square inch on an integrated circuit was doubling every eighteen months. In other words, the processing power of the computers that Intel was helping to make was continually doubling. Significantly, this was happening whilst they were becoming cheaper to make. Moore’s prediction was that the same trend that had appeared in the world of computing would apply to other industries too, a theory that has been proved to be true many times since.


What if Moore’s Law could be applied to farming? What if the amount of data that a farm could gather and process doubled every eighteen months? How would that change the way the farm operated? What if the accuracy with which farm operations were carried out, for example the accuracy with which we applied sprays or planted seeds in the ground, doubled every eighteen months? What would the impact on the environment be? What if, at the same time as this massive increase in processing power and accuracy, the cost of doing these things decreased significantly? That is what has happened in many other industries, consumer electronics being the most obvious.


What would the impact on the lives of farmers be if this were to happen? What would the benefits be to the people who eat the food that we produce?


Once something becomes digitised, in other words all of the information that goes into making something becomes digital information, the same exponential growth that we have seen in computer processing powers becomes possible in other areas. We have seen this digitisation occur many times over the last few years; our files and documents have gone from being hard copies stored in the office to digital copies stored in the cloud; our music has gone from being a physical item such as a record or a CD to a digital product, which can be downloaded and listened to anywhere; our photos have gone from being stacks of albums stored on our shelves to a digital image stored on our phones.

And yet whilst all of this change has been happening around us in our daily lives, almost without us noticing, the changes in the way that we understand and manage our farms have been much smaller. The crops in our field are still a long way from being digital products; we assess the health of our crops on an average of the field as a whole, not on a plant by plant basis. Our decision making is not, largely, based on digital information but on gut instinct and experience. Nor do we understand the soil, or the variations in soil health in any individual field, as a digital product.

All of this could change, and I would argue needs to change, if we are to see the advantages that have been captured in other industries become available to farmers.

The Six Ds of Technology Disruption:

1. Digitised: Once something becomes an information based technology, it enters the trend of exponential growth
2. Deceptive: In the initial period after something has become digitised, even though it is growing exponentially (i.e. continually doubling) the improvement is so small it seems as though it is insignificant.
3. Disruptive: This is the point at which the exponential growth of the new technology means that it outperforms the existing market products or services in both effectiveness and cost.
4. Demonetised: The technology quickly becomes cheaper to make and therefore cheaper to buy or use.
5. Dematerialised: The need for separate physical items is removed as multiple digital technologies can be stored on a single device. A smart phone now stores your music, your maps, your phone books, your camera, your files etc etc.
6. Democratised: The new digital technology is available to everyone. The processing power that is now available to anyone with a smart phone used to be something that only the richest governments in the world could access.

How Digitisation Will Change Farming

Small Robot Company is trying to digitise farming. The first step towards this is the automation of existing tasks using robotics, but the final target is not automation. The final target is to enable farming to jump on the same exponential growth curve that has been experienced in the world of computing and other industries.

As an example, let’s take a look at how we currently carry out the task of crop monitoring. How many plants do we look at in detail when making a judgement about the presence of a disease or nutrient deficiency issue? 20? 40? Rarely more than that. With human beings carrying out the analysis, that number is unlikely to grow over time. If we used a digital means of gathering this data, of which a robotic crop monitor would be one example, that accuracy and frequency of that data collection would be increasing all the time, in other words growing exponentially.


The Six Ds considered in the context of farming...

Stage One: Digitisation in Farming
As discussed above, robotics and automation is going to enable us to turn our fields, our crops and our soil, into digital products. They will become ones and zeros; we will be able to analyse them as such and take action on this basis. 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. It enables digitisation, which leads to a better future for farmers and consumers, it does not on its own solve any problems for the long term. Digitisation also enables huge amounts of data to be analysed and understood. Agronomists will need to become data scientists to survive and thrive in this new world. Digitisation will also enable huge growth in the applicability of Artificial Intelligence. One practical way in which this will change how farms are managed is that the AI driven robots working on the farm will not only learn every year from the crops they are managing on your farm, but also from similar crops being managed anywhere else in the world under this new form of digital farm management.

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 it will be small. The industry will barely notice as robotics and AI starts to solve small problems for individual farms and niche markets. On farm, initially the changes will be small and almost unnoticeable. In the early days of digitisation, the improvements in accuracy, in cost, in efficiency, in data quality may be small. However, the exponential improvements will have started and this new wave of technology, the next farming revolution, will be heading towards its Disruptive phase.

Stage Three: The Disruptive Growth of Digitisation in Farming
This is the point at which farming is going to change forever. How far away are we from this moment? I think we will reach the point at which Digital Farming, led by robotics and Artificial Intelligence, is good enough to outperform existing farm management systems in terms of effectiveness and cost within ten years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened more quickly than that. The exponential growth in the number of farms using digital technologies will result in increasing network effects, as the power of globally shared data accelerates the change in what is possible on farm. This change will be hugely disruptive to the tractor and machinery companies, to the chemical and fertiliser producers and suppliers, to the large agronomy and brokerage services that dominate the agriculture industry today. It may be that some of those existing big players are the ones that lead this change within the industry, that they learn from the example of Kodak and adapt their business model to embrace the future, or it may be that this change is led by a group of disruptive startups. Maybe it will be a series of partnerships between the two. What is certain is that it will happen one way or the other and the challenge for farmers is to have their own businesses ready to take advantage of the change.

Stage Four: The Demonetisation of Digitisation in Farming
This is the point at which it becomes really interesting and somewhat more difficult to predict. Certainly digitisation is going to change farming forever. It seems likely that this new wave of technologies will be offered to farmers through an “As A Service” model, something that Small Robot Company is leading the way with. If this model wins out, then farmers will no longer need to own or maintain machinery, making it significantly cheaper to run a farm. Unlike existing tractor led contracting models, Farming as a Service (FaaS) will be led by technologies that will, because they are digitised, get both cheaper and more powerful every year. Just as has happened with the solar panel industry, where panels have simultaneously become more efficient and cheaper, so it will happen with the processing power of our farms which will simultaneously produce more food at less cost. This will be a fantastic development for the consumer, and the ability of the farming industry to feed a growing global population, but potentially challenging for the individual farm businesses who will need to move away from commodity production as much as possible, and find ways to move up the value chain.

Stage Five: The Dematerialisation of Digitisation in Farming
At this point in the process, 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 the health of their crops and the quality of their soil by looking at an AI driven software app on their phone than they can 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. It could be that this leads to a more meritocratic farming industry. How much land you manage will no longer be a function of who your parents are. The Digital Farmer will be a global farmer, and the best farm managers and the best agronomists will have the ability to manage much more land much more accurately than they can today. The very best will rise to the top, and there could be an exciting new influx of highly skilled, highly educated, tech savvy food producers entering our industry.

Stage Six: The Democratisation of Digitisation in Farming
I warn you, this is the bit that might be scary to you if you are reading this as the owner of a farm business. The production of food is going to become more democratic. Over the course of this process, farms will have become much more productive, and it may be that the amount of land that we actively use to grow food has reduced. There is also the possibility of a future in which consumers do not rely on farmers or on farms, at least as we know them today, to produce our food. Vertical farming could take large elements of food production away from the countryside and into the cities and the suburbs. Some commentators have speculated that it could be that we go one step further than that and that food itself becomes a digital product, that we produce our own food in our own homes to an exact calorie and nutrient specification, 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 the businesses we have today. The Digital Farmer is someone who is constantly aware of these changing trends in the world around them, someone who is predominantly a heads-up leader, rather than a heads-down operator.


The challenge for farmers is to make sure that they have adopted an open mindset, so that they take the right decisions to embrace the future.


This change of mindset, as well as the provision of world class hardware and software, is something that Small Robot Company is going to help its customers to do.


Like what you are reading? Get in touch with me at sam@smallrobotcompany.com to find out how you can help make farming better.

How farmers need to change their businesses so that they are always producing at a profit

Every year as farmers we do something really pretty silly; we carry out work in our fields that costs us more money than we make from it.


This mind boggling fact was first pointed out to me by Sebastian Graff-Baker at Andersons a few months ago when I first discussed the idea of robotic farming as a service and it has been nagging away at me ever since. The problem is this; we acquire full knowledge too late. It is only when we have harvested our crop that we know how much we have yielded from each field or each hectare. It is only when we have spent all of the money that we know how much it has cost us to get the crop from seed in a bag to marketable product. It is then, and only then, that we can say with certainty what our break even yield was. With this knowledge, we know that certain parts of each field, most likely the headlands or a patch where the soil quality is particularly poor, have yielded less than our break-even yield and therefore all of the activities we have carried out on these parts of the field have been loss making activities. It is a rare year indeed that every hectare of the farm produces a profit.


The really crazy part of the farmer psyche is that (if we are honest with ourselves) we probably spend more money on those poor bits of the field - we up the seed rate, we might increase the fertiliser dosage.


It is understandable because we are eternal optimists as farmers and we think the whole field will get above that break-even point because it will yield well and the market prices will be favourable. Of course the alternative of spending less on the worst parts of the field, in other words allowing the crop to perform badly, or even in the most extreme scenario not planting the worst parts of the field at all is almost unthinkable to most farmers. Aside from anything else it will look untidy when the neighbour pokes their head over the hedge.


The other issue with the arable farmer mindset as it stands at the moment is that we measure ourselves and each other using the wrong metrics. The first bit of information that farmers try to acquire about each others’ farming enterprises is how much land the business farms, or how many tonnes the farm produces. But this is the wrong measurement. We should really measure each other by the number of tonnes we are able to produce at a profit.


The real reason that we don’t leave patches of the field unplanted and that we don’t currently measure ourselves on this basis is because we don’t have enough high quality, trustworthy data on which to base our decisions. So instead we base our decisions on hope; hope that prices will be good, the weather favourable and the yield at the top end of our budget. But, as I have said repeatedly when I speak to farmers, hope is not a strategy.


There will soon be a better way and Small Robot Company will be part of making it available.


Imagine a world where you had a far more granular understanding of the quality of every square metre of your soil. Robotics could enable this and Small Robot Company will have automated soil sampling available to farmers within three years as part of the service supplied by Tom, our monitoring robot. Tom has the patience to take a soil sample in exactly the same way repeatedly across your entire farm, and to measure every square metre (within a few short years he we will be able to be much more accurate even than that). A human being does not have this patience and so a “digital” soil map such as those made available to farmers today is necessarily subject to an amount of averaging. A soil map created by a robot will be much more accurate and consequently much more valuable; it will be much closer to achieving a truly digital view of the soil.


With this digital view established, the farmer will be able predict with a far greater degree of accuracy which parts of the field are likely to achieve budgeted yield and which are not. They then have a decision to make as to whether they do some pre-planting work to the worst parts of the field, for example to deal with drainage issues or adjust the soil pH. However, the important distinction is that Tom will have enabled this decision to be made on robust, accurate data rather than basing it largely on gut instinct.


Then comes the second wave of this new and revolutionary way of farming in the form of Harry, our digital planting robot. Harry will take this digital view of the soil provided by Tom and use it to vary the seed spacing and seed depth to give the highest possible chance of producing a profit for the farmer. Harry will also hold in his head all of the publicly available market information for the crop that is being produced and therefore be able to make a much more accurate assessment of what the likely break even yield is for this particular crop, on this particular field in this particular year. Harry will not simply repeat the same set of actions he took last year, he will learn and improve every year. If a part of the field has little or no chance of producing a profit (and farmers will be able to control the level of risk they are willing to take - more on this in future posts) then Harry will simply not plant it.


Ultimately, it will be possible for Harry to go back out into the parts of the field that have not been planted with the target crop and re-plant those patches with something else - a secondary commercial crop which is better suited to those soil conditions perhaps, or a non-commercial cover crop that provides a habitat for beneficial species. There is a huge range of options that could be feasible using a digital planter like Harry, although this “permaculture” approach is unlikely to become widely adopted until a fully automated variable harvester becomes available, something that is not currently within Small Robot Company’s initial three year vision.


Of course, there are no guarantees that the days of loss making activity will instantly be banished from farms forever. Our ability to predict the long term weather, the markets and the performance of a crop before it has been planted will never be perfect. But Tom and Harry will bring decision making on farm a good deal further on than it is today.


We are currently recruiting for our Farmer Advisory Group, a select number of farmers who will help us to shape our service and make our vision a reality.


If you are interested in the ideas discussed above and in being part of the next farming revolution, please get in touch with Co-Founder Sam Watson Jones (sam@smallrobotcompany.com).



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