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Farming Drives Toward ‘Precision Agriculture’ Technologies

This story originally appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Across Midwestern farms, if Girish Chowdhary has his way, farmers will someday release beagle-sized robots into their fields like a pack of hounds flushing pheasant. The robots, he says, will scurry in the cool shade beneath a wide diversity of plants, pulling…

This story originally appeared on Undark and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Across Midwestern farms, if Girish Chowdhary has his way, farmers will someday release beagle-sized robots into their fields like a pack of hounds flushing pheasant. He claims that the robots will be able to scurry around in the shade under a variety of plants and pull weeds. They can also plant cover crops and diagnose plant infections. This data will help farmers optimize their farms.

Chowdhary, a researcher at the University of Illinois, works surrounded by corn, one of the most productive monocultures in the world. In the United States, the corn industry was valued at $82.6 billion in 2021, but it–like almost every other segment of the agricultural economy–faces daunting problems, including changing weather patterns, environmental degradation, severe labor shortages, and the rising cost of key inputs: herbicides, pesticides, and seed.

Agribusiness as a whole is betting that the world has reached the tipping point where desperate need caused by a growing population, the economic realities of conventional farming, and advancing technology converge to require something called precision agriculture, which aims to minimize inputs and the costs and environmental problems that go with them.

There are passionate advocates for robotics and artificial Intelligence in agriculture. They see them as the solution to all of today’s problems. Their visions span technology that overlays existing farming practices to a complete rethinking that removes tractors, soil and sunlight as key factors in agricultural life.

But the promises of precision agriculture still haven’t been met. Many of the systems promised aren’t yet on the market. There have been few final prices set and very little data to prove that they work.

“The marketing around precision agriculture, that it’s going to have a huge impact, we don’t have the data for that yet,” says Emily Duncan, a researcher in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics at the University of Guelph in Canada. “Going back to the idea that we want to reduce the use of inputs, precision agriculture doesn’t necessarily say we’re going to be using less overall.”

Even so, Chowdhary, who is a cofounder and chief technical officer of Earthsense, the company that makes those beagle-sized robots, is hopeful that the adoption of his robots will propel farmers well past precision agriculture, to think about the business of farming in a whole new way. He says that most farmers are focused on yield and define success as growing more land. The result was a horizon-to horizon industrial monoculture, saturated with chemicals and managed by large and expensive machinery. Chowdhary sees the future of small farms that live in harmony with nature and grow a variety of higher-value crops using fewer chemicals.

“The biggest thing we can do is make it easier for far

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