Commercial industrial agriculture is responsible for providing food to the world’s population at an incredibly low cost, especially when compared to most of human history when most or a majority of people would have been involved in agriculture. Now it’s a tiny fraction of humans that need to grow food, while the rest can spend their time in cities and towns largely divorced from needing to produce their own food to survive. But industrial agriculture isn’t without its downsides. Providing inexpensive food to the masses often involves farming practices that are damaging to the environment, whether that’s spreading huge amounts of synthetic, non-renewable fertilizers or blanket spraying crops with pesticides and herbicides. [NathanBuildsDIY] is tackling the latter problem, using an automated drone system to systemically target weeds to reduce his herbicide use.
The specific issue that [NathanBuildsDIY] is faced with is an invasive blackberry that is taking over one of his fields. To take care of this issue, he set up a drone with a camera and image recognition software which can autonomously fly over the field thanks to Ardupilot and a LiDAR system, differentiate the blackberry weeds from other non-harmful plants, and give them a spray of herbicide. Since drones can’t fly indefinitely, he’s also build an automated landing pad complete with a battery swap and recharge station, which allows the drone to fly essentially until it is turned off and uses a minimum of herbicide in the process.
The entire setup, including drone and landing pad, was purchased for less than $2000 and largely open-source, which makes it accessible for even small-scale farmers. A depressing trend in farming is that the tools to make the work profitable are often only attainable for the largest, most corporate of farms. But a system like this is much more feasible for those working on a smaller scale and the automation easily frees up time that the farmer can use for other work. There are other ways of automating farm work besides using drones, though. Take a look at this open-source robotics platform that drives its way around the farm instead of flying.
There are two professions used to driving single-seaters with hundreds of horsepower, one of which is very exclusive and the other of which can be found anywhere the ground is fertile enough to support agriculture. Formula One drivers operate fragile machines pushed to the edges of their performance envelope, while the tractor at the hands of a farmer is designed to reliably perform huge tasks on dodgy ground in all weathers. Today’s tractor is invariably a large machine powered by a diesel engine, and it’s the equal of all tasks on a modern farm. Against that backdrop then it’s interesting to read the Smithsonian magazine’s look at the emerging world of electric tractors. Will they replace diesel as the source of traction in the fields?
The two firms they focus on first are Monarch Tractor, and Solectrac. Both manufacturers offer small machines of the type we’d be inclined to describe as an orchard tractor, and Monarch are offering an autonomous option as part of their package. They also feature Farm-ng, whose machine called amusingly the Amiga, is a much smaller affair which we are guessing would be super-useful on a very intensive operation such as market gardening. We’re especially pleased to see that the emerging small electric tractor industry is embracing right to repair, something the traditional manufacturers are famous for ignoring.
It’s obvious that none of these machines are going to revolutionize the world of large high-power tractors any time soon, as they are too small for the job and can’t offer the 24/7 operation required at busy times on a farm. But it’s obvious they would be very useful on a small farm, and in particular for those tractor applications where the machine is a platform which goes from place to place to aid static work, they could be better than their diesel equivalents.
It’s odd that over the years we’ve not covered any electric tractors before. Perhaps that is, until you search instead for agricultural robots.
We’ve all tangled with unwelcome plant life at one point or another. Whether crabgrass infested your lawn, or you were put on weeding duty in your grandfather’s rose patch, you’ll know they’re a pain to remove, and a pain to prevent. For farmers, just imagine the same problem, but scaled up to cover thousands of acres.
Dealing with weeds typically involves harsh chemicals or excessive manual labor. Lasers could prove to be a new tool in the fight against this scourge, however, as covered by the BBC.
Land tends to be a valuable thing. Outside of some weird projects in Dubai, by and large, they aren’t making any more of it. That means as we try to feed and power the ever-growing population of humanity, we need to think carefully about how we use the land we have.
The field of agrivoltaics concerns itself with the dual-use of land for both food production and power generation. It’s all about getting the most out of the the available land and available sunlight we have.
Farming is a challenge under even the best of circumstances. Almost all conventional farmers use some combination of tillers, combines, seeders and plows to help get the difficult job done, but for those like [Taylor] who do not farm large industrial monocultures, more specialized tools are needed. While we’ve featured the Acorn open source farming robot before, it’s back now with new and improved features and a simulation mode to help rapidly improve the platform’s software.
The first of the two new physical features includes a fail-safe braking system. Since the robot uses electric geared hub motors for propulsion, the braking system consists of two normally closed relays which short the motor leads in emergency situations. This makes the motors see an extremely high load and stops them from turning. The robot also has been given advanced navigation facilities so that it can follow custom complex routes. And finally, [Taylor] created a simulation mode so that the robot’s entire software stack can be run in Docker and tested inside a simulation without using the actual robot.
For farmers who are looking to buck unsustainable modern agricultural practices while maintaining profitable farms, a platform like Acorn could be invaluable. With the ability to survey, seed, harvest, and even weed, it could perform every task of larger agricultural machinery. Of course, if you want to learn more about it, you can check out our earlier feature on this futuristic farming machine.
Chinese researchers are reporting that applying an electric field to pea plants increased yields. This process — known as electroculture — has been tested multiple times, but in each case there are irregularities in the scientific process, so there is still an opportunity for controlled research to produce meaningful data.
This recent research used two plots of peas planted from the same pods. The plants were tended identically except one plot was stimulated by an electric field. The yield on the stimulated plot was about 20% more than the control plot.
The actual paper is paywalled in the journal Nature Food, but the idea seems simple enough. If you search for the topic, you’ll find there have been other studies with similar findings. There are also anecdotal reports of electrical plant stimulation going back to 1746.
It’s usual for a Hackaday scribe to read hundreds of web pages over a typical week as we traverse the world in search of the good stuff to bring you. Sometimes they’re obvious Hackaday stories but as you’ll all no doubt understand we often end up on wild tangents learning about stuff we never expected to be excited about. Thus it was last week that I happened upon a GQ piece charting the dwindling remains of the communes set up in rural California by hippies during the counterculture years.
With only a few ageing residents who truly embraced the back-to-the-land dream remaining, these adventurously-designed home-made houses are gently decaying into the forest. It’s a disappearing world, but it’s also close to home for me as someone who crew up on a self-sufficiency smallholding in the 1970s. My parents may not have been hippies in the way those of everyone else in that scene at the time seemed to be, but I learned all my curiosity and hacking skills in the many opportunities presented to a small child by an unruly combination of small farm and metalworking business. There’s part of me that would build a hippy home in a Californian forest in a heartbeat, and throw myself with gusto into subsistence vegetable growing to get me through each winter.