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Farm robots could bring utopia or disaster, scientist warns

An illustration shows what a utopian farm run by a variety of intelligent robots might look like. Photo by Natalis Lorenz
An illustration shows what a utopian farm run by a variety of intelligent robots might look like. Photo by Natalis Lorenz

July 13 (UPI) -- Agriculture is already highly mechanized, and in the not too distant future, agricultural economist Thomas Daum predicts entire farms will be run by robots.

In fact, robots are already being deployed on farms.

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As Daum sees it, robotization has the potential to transform the agricultural sector and usher in one of two realities: one utopian, the other dystopian.

Daum described these two opposing realities in a new paper, published Tuesday in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

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Daum's utopia features swarms of small robots working around the clock on small- and medium-sized farms.

These farms feature a diverse rotation of crops interwoven seamlessly with the natural environment, including healthy habitat for a rich variety of native flora and fauna -- organically raised crops buffered by grasslands, streams and woodlands.

"It's like a Garden of Eden," Daum, a research fellow at the University of Hohenheim in Germany, said in a press release.

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"Small robots could help conserve biodiversity and combat climate change in ways that were not possible before," Daum said.

Utopian farming, according to Daum, would be too labor intensive, but swarms of small, intelligent robots working in synchronicity 24-7 could make it work.

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These robots would be able to deploy biopesticides more precisely and zap individual weeds with lasers, limiting the farm's impact on the surrounding environment.

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Crop yields would be high, while the farm's environmental footprint would be minimal, Daum said.

Conversely, large but less sophisticated robots could be used to bulldoze the land and further expand modern, monoculture agriculture.

With humans out of the way, these robots could spray pesticides and deploy fertilizers with greater intensities and at broader scales.

Though reality is unlikely to resemble a pure utopia or dystopia, Daum hopes his paper will inspire scientists, engineers and policy makers to start thinking about how agricultural robots can be used for sustainably.

"The utopia and dystopia are both possible from a technological perspective," he said. "But without the right guardrails on policy, we may end up in the dystopia without wanting to if we don't discuss this now."

Daum's utopian farm would benefit more than just the environment.

Farms that grow a diversity of crops, not just high yield grains, are more likely to supply consumers with the full range of fruits and vegetables that healthy diet requires.

Because small swarms of intelligent robots can be more easily adopted by small farmers, places like Asia and Africa may be better positioned for utopian agriculture.

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Conversely, agriculture in the places like the United States, Russia and Brazil are already dominated by large-scale farms growing low-value grains and oilseeds -- places where big, crude robots are more likely to be introduced.

"While it is true that the preconditions for small robots are more challenging in these areas, even with large robots -- or a mix between small and large -- we can take steps toward the utopia with practices such as intercropping, having hedgerows, agroforestry and moving away from larger farms to smaller plots of land owned by large farmers," Daum said.

"Some such practices may even pay off for farmers once robots can do the job, as previously uneconomic practices become profitable," Daum said.

To ensure agricultural robots are engineered for sustainable ends and deployed in eco-friendly ways, Daum said policy makers must use a combination of incentives, including subsidies, regulations and taxes.

"I think the utopia is achievable," Daum said. "It won't be as easy as the dystopia, but it's very much possible."

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