how old macdonald’s farm might just get automated

Robots are now making their way to one of the oldest and most important human occupations: farming. And further automation of agriculture will have serious consequences.

iron ox robot farmer lettuce hydroponics
Iron Ox’s farm bot tending to hydroponic lettuce trays

Humans have been farming for more than 14,000 years and this leap is widely credited with us becoming a civilization in the truest sense of the word. Agriculture and irrigation drew us from caves into villages which grew to become cities, which in turn grew to become self-contained city states that eventually fought and merged into the first nations. It was the predominant occupation for our species until just a century or so ago, as industrialization spread across the world and turned agrarian states into manufacturing, then service economies.

While developing countries still have comparatively oversized agrarian sectors, we’ve learned that industrialization quickly knocks even the biggest and most advanced farming to less than 5% of a nation’s GDP. With countless pieces of large, expensive, and sophisticated equipment on modern farms producing enough food to, in theory, feed every person on Earth, it may also seem like automation has done its job with farmers. Those who currently grow our crops and raise our livestock are essential personnel, so much so that there’s a serious shortage of labor in agriculture. But industrialization may have only been phase one for farms.

The next phase may look like Iron Ox’s robotic hydroponic systems, which are currently growing lettuce in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse. The goal is for the machines to take over everything from planting to harvesting, tasks with which they currently get human assistance. This way, far fewer workers would be needed to feed entire cities, and instead of millions of acres of cropland we use today, much of our produce could come from vertical farms close to cities, delivering fresher vegetables grown around the clock in a supervised, indoor environment, without pesticides and weed killers. One could almost imagine a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie involving astronauts on Mars and not be far off Iron Ox’s vision.

And there are many advantages to growing food this way instead of planting it in huge fields and hoping nature cooperates. Hydroponics require much less water, the plants are safe from bad weather, drought, and weeds, and sickness or infestations can be quickly found and stopped before they affect sizeable portions of the crops. Decentralizing farms would also make the distribution of produce a lot more efficient because there are no planting seasons, and instead of shipping food across the world, it can just travel in a refrigerated truck for a few hours. You could grow whatever you want, whenever you want, provided you have the space for it and the robots know how to take care of the plant as it’s growing.

Hold on, you might be asking, if hydroponics are so vastly superior to traditional farming and can even be almost entirely automated, why don’t we use them for everything? Well, the number one reason is that industrial sized hydroponics operations would need almost constant power, especially if they’re tended to by robots. Since it’s cheaper to use cropland instead of investing millions into building a giant cube full of specialized machinery, not a lot of companies are doing it right now. But they’ve also never had robots capable of doing intricate tasks as well as humans to offset the cost of maintaining a hydroponic farm, something that could change the financial reasoning behind current farming techniques.

We also know that in the long run, trying to get more and more out of the soil just isn’t financially or environmentally sustainable. Thanks to climate change, many breadbaskets are facing either the threat of water shortages or are already encountering them. As the world keeps getting warmer, new invasive species and pests will find their ways to farms faster than we can design GMOs and pesticides capable fending them off without harming us in the process. From a big picture perspective, one day we’ll have little choice but to start bringing more and more crops indoors, tended by nimble robots supervised by just a small handful of humans.

And that thought leaves us with another important question to answer. In the current political climate, it seems foolhardy to expect our leaders to start preparing farmers for the future and encourage pilot projects for distributed robotic hydroponic farms. Small towns still built around agriculture, which they see as key to their identity, could be hollowed out by the economic impact of these changes. Their location in the “sticks/boonies/nowhere” is an asset when farming needs vast swaths of arable land. It will be a liability when it’s easier to build a farm-scraper on the outskirts of megapolises and use their infrastructure to feed smaller surrounding cities.

The end result would certainly exacerbate the economic and political aspects of the rural/urban divide and cause even more political turmoil without serious structural reforms. But that doesn’t mean we should delay the future or treat a potentially disruptive technology with casual shrugs, especially when it solves very real problems over the course of a few decades. We’re already badly bungling our transition to a post-industrial world. As automation becomes even more pervasive, not just in the West but worldwide, we owe it to ourselves to dream big and make roadmaps for how we’ll incorporate new technologies and capitalize on the opportunities they bring. And farming bots might be a key test for how ready we are for the future.

# tech // farming / future / futurism / robots


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