From birth to death, most people have extensive reports of their medical well-being. This practice never seemed bizarre to me until I learned that it is currently being applied to plants. It took a moment, but my amusement dissipated and now having reports on the health of crops, regardless of how many of them there are, appears to be a fairly logical step to me. In fact, it made me wonder why it took us this long to implement a practice like this in agriculture, considering mankind’s obsession with efficiency and autonomy.
Robots that weigh 25 grams and fly at the speed of six meters per second do not sound particularly impressive, considering that most of our technology is more advanced than that. What is impressive about them, however, is what these little aerial robots can do. Inspired by honeybees, Vijay Kumar, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, with the help of his fellow researchers, has had a breakthrough in the field of robotics. He has attempted to replicate the communication methods of honeybees in swarms with artificial robot swarms. His robots have been developed such that they can sense their neighbors’ position and respond to mathematical inputs by forming shapes with fellow robots within a split second’s notice, all the while remaining agnostic to each other’s identities. These qualities are reminiscent of honeybees because they too are small, well-coordinated and unbiased workers in nature.
How does this apply to agriculture? Kumar suggests a procedure called “Precision Farming.” The aerial robots have the ability to create high-resolution maps of their surroundings. When released in an orchard, they can count the number of fruits on each tree, estimate the canopy size and, therefore, calculate a tree’s maximum photosynthesis potential. Both pieces of information can help farmers evaluate and optimize their yield. The differentiation of healthy crops and unhealthy ones, along with early detection of chlorosis (the yellowing of leaves) allows farmers to keep track of the health of their crops and provide them with the exact amount and kind of nourishment they require.
With the application of this new technology in agriculture, Kumar hopes to target critical issues such as malnourishment, which is caused by water shortage and crop disease among other things. This is all well and good but it appears to me that, as of now, very little consideration has been put into environmental factors, such as the weather. Countries like India, for example, that have particularly large agricultural industries also have harsh environments such as monsoons, strong winds and scorching summers. A compact and light electronic robot cannot possibly serve its purpose if there are chances of it getting blown off course, damaged due to moisture or overheated as a result of tropical climate.
Additionally, the impact flying robots are likely to have on other winged creatures is unknown, as is their significance to their target demographic — farmers. If farmers are to adopt this new method of keeping track of their fields, they need to be accepting of this technology and taught how to use it. It still needs to be an economical investment. As for Kumar’s vision of eradicating malnourishment, increasing crop yields is not correlated to solving the problem. We also need to take into account the regulation of food distribution. His technology does not provide a satisfactory solution to this problem, but it does propose a practical technique that could decrease water input since it detects the required amount for individual plants.
It is clear that Vijay Kumar’s flying robots have the potential to be highly applicable to the agricultural industry, but since the idea is not fully developed yet, there are quite a few factors that need to be taken into consideration and several new models that need to be tested before widespread use. They could prove to be beneficial and efficient over time.