How can we use Robotics and Artificial Intelligence to save our soil? #EarthDay

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.

At Small Robot Company, we have been guilty of this as well to a certain extent, but this blog marks the start of a concentrated effort to change that.

Specifically, how is it that  a farming system which is  led by robotics and  Artificial Intelligence is  going to be better for our  soils?

We are certainly not alone in thinking that more   needs to be done about soil health.

British farmers and British soil scientists have been talking about this issue for a number of years. The success of Groundswell, a farmer led conference now entering its fourth year, which is focused above all other things on soil health, is testament to this.

In 2018, we set up a group called our Farmer Advisory Group; twenty farmers located all over the UK, who have committed to help us bring our ideas to market. The majority of this group are practising the “no-till” method, which removes cultivation wherever possible from the farming system in an effort to improve soil health. In fact, 100% of our members cited improving soil health as one of their key reasons for being interested in a future of farming led by robotics and Artificial Intelligence.

But truly soil conscious farmers are still in a minority. Take a look at this excellent series of articles in Politico if you would like to read in more detail about the state of soil health across Europe. Some key citations from their report:

  • Europe loses 9 million tonnes of soil every year to soil erosion, equivalent to 275 soccer pitches every day.

  • Soil compaction affects about 20% of all European farmland.

  • Senior soil scientists across Europe state that almost all soils are losing their organic part.

  • Research from Rothamstead has shown sharp decreases in earthworm populations across British farmland, with 21% of fields in the study showing no surface-dwelling worms, stating that this indicates a wide-spread, historical over-cultivation.

  • Most of our current antibiotics have come from soil bacteria and soil is a reservoir for discovering potential future antibiotics which we are potentially losing forever.

  • Soil disturbance through cultivation also contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, as undisturbed soil is a good store for carbon.

Central to all of this is the continued use of the tractor and the continued reliance, as a result, on cultivation as part of a normal crop rotation.

What is the worst that could happen, if we simply carry on as we are?

Degrading soil health has been called a severe environmental crisis and I don’t think that is overstating the issue.

If we carry on operating the same farming system that we currently have or even the same one but with minor tweaks, then we will end up with a world in which we cannot rely on our soils to produce the food that we need, which is a catastrophic outcome for humanity.

As more high-quality farmland is lost to soil erosion (and by the way, we are also losing an average of 75,000 hectares of farmland every year to urbanisation in Europe) then we will need to rely more heavily on indoor farming and artificial soil. Certainly, vertical farms have a role to play in the future of food but it is difficult to foresee this technology being able to produce all crops at scale.

At the micro-level, farms will fail in their droves, pushing huge chunks of the rural economy into collapse.

This is too serious a problem for it to be addressed by incremental tweaks to the system.

Unfortunately, though I completely agree with the no-till philosophy; a system based on a big heavy tractor and a big heavy drill are not going to make enough of a difference, well intentioned as they are.

And what is the best result, if we adopt a radically different farming system, led by Robotics and Artificial Intelligence?

The obvious and most immediate difference is that less weight on the soil means less damage to the soil. Less compaction means less need for cultivation. We are developing a system led by small, smart machines so we have to design a system which is based on low power farming, on the precision placement of seeds with no draught force and on minimal soil disturbance and this will, in turn, lead to the natural regeneration of soil health.

It should be noted that this will not be a quick fix; damaged soil can take up to 40 years to completely regenerate itself.

However, the real opportunity for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in farming goes far beyond replacing big machines with small machines. The seismic shift that farming could be about to see comes from the detailed mapping, measurement and understanding of the soil that robots could enable.

Fantastic digital tools for measuring many aspects of soil health already exist, but they have a limited impact because they are being used by human beings. This means that the data gathered is sporadic we are yet to achieve a truly digital view of our soil.

Small Robot Company is aiming to take measurements from every single square metre of soil from the fields operating under our service, and in time we will look to go even more granular than that.

This is an impossible task for a human being but a great one for a robot! 

We are seeking to digitise the soil so that we can build up a more detailed understanding of how everything that lives in the soil interacts with and influences the plants that we are trying to grow.

One of the most exciting aspects of this is that nothing new needs to be invented, in terms of soil analysis technology; for us to have a view of the soil that is exponentially better than the view we have today. The robot is the missing link.

Of course, new soil analysis technologies will be invented once this new method of measurement of becomes widespread, ushering in an entirely different level of understanding and interaction with this most important of resources.

Not only will robotics and AI provide a viable pathway towards the ongoing measurement of soil health, they will also make possible a whole new range of questions that we have never been able to ask ourselves before. This could lead to new rotations, new cropping patterns, new ways of thinking about the way we use our soils to produce food.

An Artificial Intelligence driven map of the soil will suggest an unconstrained and creative view of our farming system which is based around soil science rather than the demands of making our machinery efficient, which is the system we currently use.

The future of farming should be led by the information we are gathering from the soil and this is the future that Small Robot Company is trying to create.