Swarm Technology: High Tech Horticulturalists - Modern Farmer

Swarm Technology: High Tech Horticulturalists

In the future, automated robots will be dispatched to water, fertilize, and weed fields.

In the future, automated robots much like this prototype will be dispatched to water, fertilize, and weed fields.
Photography André Gallant

But it’s a mob of autonomous, palm-size machines, which roboticists call “the swarm,” that promises to truly revolutionize food production.

Small and nimble, these solar-powered robots (above) will eventually be able to tend individual plants without wasting resources or leaving large environmental footprints, says Magnus Egerstedt, a roboticist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who is currently researching mechanisms for controlling and directing the swarms. “By being more targeted, by only applying fertilizer where needed, you’re going to get better crops and save money,” notes Egerstedt, who believes the swarms of the future will one day work as constant gardeners, caring for crops daily over their life cycle. They’ll likely be equipped with sensors to diagnose illness in individual plants, suited with small tanks of water and fertilizer or seeds for planting, even given mechanical arms for weeding and culling.

While experts are still a few years away from figuring out how farmers will interface with the compact machines – and, say, direct them to one side of a field with a single swipe on a tablet – much of the robotic technology is ready, according to Egerstedt. Private manufacturers of farm equipment, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Navy, all funders of his research on swarm technology, eagerly await the finished product.

The idea of an army of farming robots may challenge certain bucolic notions, but Egerstedt insists the intention is not to replace farmers, but to reduce their workloads: “This technology is meant to free them so they can focus instead on the business and science of farming.”

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