Tiny, needle-like sensors inserted into plants are the latest addition to precision agriculture

Using microneedles, a technology borrowed from medicine, researchers mine real-time data to make farming hyper-efficient—and more sustainable

By Emma Bryce

What if we could closely track the health of plants, the way we use a monitor to track a human heartbeat? Researchers have moved us closer to this goal, with a new type of microsensor that can be inserted into the leaves and stems of crops to directly monitor information about their health and productivity. 

This is one of the most recent innovations to come out of precision agriculture, a field of research and technological development that aims to gather as much data as possible on the optimal growing conditions for plants – typically using technologies like soil sensors and camera-fitted drones. Gathering this information could increase the efficiency of fertilizer and water to cut back on waste, pollution, and emissions. By finding out exactly what crops need, precision agriculture could also increase yields, which would have the added benefit of maximising land use and limiting agricultural expansion — one of the biggest threats to wild habitat, and a contributor to climate change. 

The researchers on the new study think their newly-developed sensors — tiny, needle-like structures made of polymers, which are inserted into plants — could be a powerful addition to the precision agriculture toolbox. 

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3 TRANSFORMATIVE TECHNOLOGIES THAT WILL REVOLUTIONIZE THE PLANET

The next agricultural revolution is coming.

AGRICULTURE’S IMPACT ON THE PLANET is massive and relentless. Roughly 40 percent of the Earth’s suitable land surface is used for cropland and grazing. The number of domestic animals far outweighs the remaining wild populations. Every day, more primary forest falls against a tide of crops and pasture, and each year an area as large as the United Kingdom is lost. If humanity is to have a hope of addressing climate change, we must reimagine farming.

Covid-19 has also exposed weaknesses with current food systems. Agricultural scientists have known for decades that farm labor can be exploitative and hard, so it should surprise no one that farm owners had trouble importing labor to keep farms running as they struggled to ensure food workers stay free from the virus.

Similarly, “just enough, just in time” food supply chains are efficient but offer little redundancy. And pushing farmland into the wilds connects humans with reservoirs of viruses that — when they enter the human population — prove devastating.

To address these challenges, new technologies promise a greener approach to food production and focus on more plant-based, year-round, local and intensive production. Done right, three technologies — vertical, cellular, and precision agriculture — can remake the relationship between land and food.

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Here’s what happened when AI and humans met in a strawberry-growing contest

Do they really need a human touch? 

By Victoria Masterson

  • In Pinduoduo’s Smart Agriculture Competition, four technology teams competed with traditional farmers over four months to grow strawberries.
  • Data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation helped the scientists win.
  • Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI are forecast to deliver huge productivity gains – but need the right governance, according to the Global Technology Governance Report 2021.

Strawberries can be easy to grow – especially, it seems, if you’re an algorithm.

When farmers in China competed to grow the fruit with technology including machine learning and artificial intelligence, the machines won, by some margin.

Data scientists produced 196% more strawberries by weight on average compared with traditional farmers.

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Self-watering soil could transform farming

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Researchers planted radishes in this miniature greenhouse using their self-watering soil and compared it to sandy soil found in dry regions of the world.

A new type of soil created by engineers at The University of Texas at Austin can pull water from the air and distribute it to plants, potentially expanding the map of farmable land around the globe to previously inhospitable places and reducing water use in agriculture at a time of growing droughts.

As published in ACS Materials Letters, the team’s atmospheric water irrigation system uses super-moisture-absorbent gels to capture water from the air. When the soil is heated to a certain temperature, the gels release the water, making it available to plants. When the soil distributes water, some of it goes back into the air, increasing humidity and making it easier to continue the harvesting cycle.

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Alphabet’s Mineral moonshot wants to help farmers with robotic plant buggies

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The tech could lead to more sustainable farming practices.

 In 2018, Alphabet’s X lab said it was in the process of exploring how it could use artificial intelligence to improve farming. On Monday, X announced that its “computational agriculture” project is called Mineral. The Mineral team has spent the last several years “developing and testing a range of software and hardware prototypes based on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, simulation, sensors, robotics and more.”

One of the tools that has come out of the project is a robotic plant buggy. Powered by solar panels, the machine makes its way across a farmer’s field, examining every plant it passes along the way with an array of cameras and sensors. In conjunction with satellite, weather and soil data, Mineral says the buggy and its AI software can identify patterns and give farmers insights into their crops.

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Groundbreaking for a one-of-a-kind hemp processing plant in Fort Benton

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FORT BENTON — Thursday was a big day in Fort Benton as the mayor, a U.S. senator, and hemp farmers broke ground on a new facility – the first of its kind in the nation.

 Employees of the industrial hemp company IND HEMP were joined by Fort Benton Mayor Rick Morris and Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester for the ceremony, which marked the opening of the nation’s first scaled hemp decortication and fiber processing plant. The Chouteau County town, with around 1,500 residents, gained national attention for the opening event.

“Stuff like this just doesn’t come along for rural Montana,” said Morris. “It’s a big deal for Fort Benton.”

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Tiny weed-killing robots could make pesticides obsolete

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This swarm of robots may herald a chemical-free food revolution

The fleet of Greenfield Robotics weedbots ready and waiting for beta test trials. Photos courtesy of Greenfield Robotics.

Clint Brauer’s farm outside of Cheney, Kansas, could be described as Old MacDonald’s Farm plus robots. Along with 5,500 square feet of vegetable-growing greenhouses, classes teaching local families to grow their food, a herd of 105 sheep, and Warren G—a banana-eating llama named after the rapper—is a fleet of ten, 140-pound, battery-operated robots.

Brauer, the co-founder of Greenfield Robotics, grew up a farm kid. He left for the big city tech and digital world, but eventually made his way back to the family farm. Now, it’s the R&D headquarters for the Greenfield Robotics team, plus a working farm.

When Brauer returned to his agricultural roots, he did so with a purpose: to prove that food could be grown without harmful chemicals and by embracing soil- and planet-friendly practices. He did just that, becoming one of the premier farmers growing vegetables in Kansas without pesticides, selling to local markets, grocery store chains, and chefs.

But it wasn’t enough to make the difference Brauer was hoping for. Sure, he was growing a lot of environmentally friendly, pesticide-free vegetables. But a few acres in chemical-free vegetable production was nothing compared to miles and miles of broadacre, arable farmland that make up the majority of America’s agricultural lands.

Brauer was especially intrigued by no-till solutions for soil health. No-till is exactly what it sounds like: farming without using techniques like plowing and cultivation, which “disturb” the soil to kill weeds. Many U.S. farmers, especially those in America’s heartland of corn, soy, and wheat production, have already switched to or are looking to embrace no-till practices. Over 104 million acres were farmed no-till in 2017, an increase of 8% since 2012. Just over 900 million acres, including no-till land, were farmed in the United States in 2017, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture.

But parking machinery to improve soil health often comes with a trade that didn’t sit well with Brauer: dependence on chemical weed control. No-till works to improve soil health, but the trade-off in chemical use is not much better for the environment than conventional farming. Regardless of the type of farming, the problem is the same.

“You got to start with weeds. It’s the number one thing that farmers are fighting,” Brauer says.

That’s where the robots come in.

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Could we be farming rather than mining metals in the future?

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Surface of Seabed Manganese Nodule from South Korea

 There are trillions of potato-sized metal nodules on the floor of the ocean around the world.

Some of these nodules are being explored for economic potential. A major vote by a UN body on the commercial exploitation of these minerals is planned in October 2020 (postponed from July 2020).

However, the formation of these metallic nodules is radically different from the processes used to create such metals on land i.e., they are biological in origin rather the geological.

This has profound implications for what the true value of life around these metallic nodules could be.

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U.S. reels toward meat shortage; world may be next

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Key operations are halted in the U.S., Brazil and Canada, affecting pork and poultry production.

Plant shutdowns are leaving the U.S. dangerously close to meat shortages as coronavirus outbreaks now spread to suppliers across the Americas.

Almost a third of U.S. pork capacity is down, the first big poultry plants closed on Friday and experts are warning that domestic shortages are just weeks away. Brazil, the world’s No. 1 shipper of chicken and beef, saw its first major closure with the halt of a poultry plant owned by JBS SA, the world’s biggest meat company. Key operations are also down in Canada, the latest being a British Columbia poultry plant.

While hundreds of plants in the Americas are still running, the staggering acceleration for supply disruptions is now raising questions over global shortfalls. Taken together, the U.S., Brazil and Canada account for about 65% of world meat trade.

“It’s absolutely unprecedented,” said Brett Stuart, president of Denver-based consulting firm Global AgriTrends. “It’s a lose-lose situation where we have producers at the risk of losing everything and consumers at the risk of paying higher prices. Restaurants in a week could be out of fresh ground beef.”

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So you’re too ethical to eat meat; but should cows go extinct?

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Vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular. Alternative sources of protein, including lab-grown meat, are becoming available. This trend away from farmed meat-eating looks set to continue. From an environmental perspective and a welfare perspective, that’s a good thing. But how far should we go? Would it be good if the last cow died?

Many people value species diversity. Very many feel the pull of the intuition that it’s a bad thing if a species becomes extinct. In fact, we sometimes seem to value the species more than we value the individual members. Think of insects, for example. The life of a fly might be of trivial value, but each fly species seems considerably more valuable (despite the lack of any direct instrumental value to us of flies). Do we – should we – value cattle? Should we be concerned if cows (or a subspecies of cows) is threatened with extinction? Should we take steps to preserve them, just as we take steps to conserve pandas and wolves?

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Swarms of teeny robo-tractors will outmaneuver Tesla’s driverless cars

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While Elon Musk and Waymo get all the attention — and regulations — autonomous vehicles for farming face fewer tech barriers and could be just as important

Between 2009 and 2015, Google spent $1.1 billion on autonomous vehicles for its Waymo subsidiary, which have so far roamed more than 10 million miles of city streets — though none of those miles have yet involved a paying customer. Tesla, which builds the data collection it uses to improve its autonomous technology into every vehicle it sells, lost more than $1 billion as a company last year alone. In pursuit of viable self-driving cars, the companies have had to navigate a web of regulation that varies from state to state, apply for permits, and risk getting banned from roads if they fail to follow the rules. Neither of their self-driving technologies is ready to be set loose on public streets without a human safety driver behind the wheel or navigating previously approved routes.

But Zack James faced few barriers when he started his autonomous tractor company in 2017. His roughly 200-pound tractors are closer in size to a riding lawn mower (and about half the weight) than they are to traditional combines and sprayers, and the open metal frame vehicles work together in a swarm. After coming up with the concept while in law school at the University of Michigan, it took James about a month to fabricate the first prototype, which he soon tested on a family field in Crown Point, Indiana, standing by in case the tractor encountered an obstacle it couldn’t yet navigate.

Instead of sleek Teslas or robot Ubers, the first truly driverless vehicles are more likely to look like James’ tractors: rolling placidly over a cornfield at a max speed of 7 mph.

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Cows on Russian farm get fitted with VR goggles to increase milk production

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The VR headsets will hopefully relax the cows, offering them sun-filled summer views of green pastures.

If you walked onto the RusMoloko dairy farm near Moscow, in Russia, you may think you’ve arrived onto a bizarre futuristic film set, where cows run around fitted with VR headsets.

The VR goggles aren’t props for a film, however. They have been specifically made for these dairy cows, so as to improve their conditions and enable them to relax into producing more milk.

Many different industries around the world are turning more and more toward computerization to improve working conditions, so why not the farming industry too?

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