Saturday, May 25, 2013

aligning research for long-term relevance

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
Seneca the Younger

“Change brings opportunity.”
Nido Qubein

No one wants to spend their life doing something that ceases to matter before they've even reached retirement, yet who can say which enterprises will wither and which will prosper, and for how long. We make our choices and take our chances that fate and fashion will be kind to us.

On the other hand, some things are predictable. One such is the increasing price of petroleum and products derived from it, over a matter of decades, as easily pumped supplies dwindle, as the techniques involved in extracting other supplies become both more expensive and less acceptable, and as calls for a gradually escalating tax on carbon emissions gain traction. Another is that the already high concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will climb even higher before leveling out, with dramatic consequences for climates worldwide.

Yet another is that given other pressures on agriculture, from climate change and the rising price of fuel and other petroleum derivatives, practices that result in soil erosion and the mineralization of what remains will become even less popular than they are already, perhaps to the point of becoming illegal. In the future, if tillage is to be used at all, contour farming might be required wherever there's enough slope for water to collect in puddles or run off the land rather than percolating into it. But, realistically, routine tillage is a problem no matter how you go about it, ten thousand years of precedent notwithstanding. No-till farming is gaining in popularity – although, at present, frequently depending heavily on herbicides, something else that's becoming increasingly unpopular. There has to be a better way.

So say you're a professor, postdoc, or grad student with an interest in agricultural robotics. To what should you apply your efforts? If you climb onto the bandwagon of the latest fad, whatever it might be, you run the risk that you're work will never be put to practical use. Conversely, if you simply work to automate practices that are currently common, you risk seeing your work devalued as those practices are displaced altogether by some new approach to farming. What to do?

The answer to that will necessarily be largely driven by your technical background and interests, which piece(s) of the complex technological puzzle that is robotics you are comfortable with and/or motivated to work on. Happily, some technologies are broadly applicable, and will be useful no matter what farming system is in use. One such example is UAVs that are large enough to carry an array of sensors and robust enough to deal with vigorous winds; the information they can provide will be valuable no matter what is happening on the ground.

Other technologies are more tied to specific farming practices. This is commonly seen in row cropping, where crops are planted in rows that are far enough apart for the wheels of smaller tractors or self-propelled sprayers to fit between them, with the spraying equipment and implements pulled by those tractors also designed to fit between the rows. But most such equipment is designed for use with narrow rows separated by wider gaps, so just the change from narrow rows (single lines of plants) to wide rows (densely planted swaths, perhaps eight feet wide) renders much of this equipment useless. A more dramatic shift, such as a switch from monoculture to polyculture, especially a polyculture that incorporates perennials, could force us to rethink our entire approach to field work and idle most existing equipment.

That existing equipment represents a huge investment, and therefore its removal from service can be expected to encounter a huge amount of inertial resistance, which is why no change of this magnitude could possibly happen overnight. It will take years, perhaps decades, before new equipment, suited to a new way of doing things, can be designed, factory production ramped up, and existing inventory replaced. Considering that this new way of doing things is likely to parallel or precipitate other changes, for example in the nature of commodity markets, this gradual transformation may be a good thing, as it will provide time to make other adjustments.

What will this new way of doing things look like? First it must be far less destructive of the environment than current methods. There are some objective measures for this, for example: how much soil is blown or washed from the land each year, contributing to the dust load in the atmosphere and the sediment load in streams and estuaries; how much of what remains on the land is organic material (decaying plants and humus); the amount of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides that find their way into the atmosphere and into aquifers and rivers; and the loss of biodiversity (plants and animals) caused by the destruction of natural ecosystems to make way for agriculture. Ideally it should be regenerative, gradually healing the destruction already done.

But, at the same time, it must be productive on a scale at least approaching that of conventional modern agriculture, as measured in terms of food value (calories, protein, dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, etc.) per acre per year. To sacrifice this would be to invite destruction of the last remaining wildernesses to make way for expansion, and/or famine. Some slack in the need for production can be created by a shift away from grain-fed meat and dairy products.

This combination of requirements, that agriculture continue producing food of acceptable quality in adequate amounts, while at least becoming environmentally benign, and without further expansion onto land not already committed to agricultural production, is the minimum acceptable scenario. It is also a formidable challenge, requiring intensive management to make the best possible, gentle use of available land. If that intensive management had to be provided by people, we might need to move upwards of 25% of the population back into agricultural production. Happily, robotics offers an alternative approach, one that doesn't involve forcing people back onto the land.

But, even using intensive methods, how is it possible to accomplish maintaining or increasing productivity without sacrificing environmental concerns? Many believe the answer to this is agroecology, the use of agricultural methods that mimic (and, on the edges, blend into) natural ecosystems, which at the minimum means both polyculture (intermingling of companion plants) and permaculture (the inclusion of perennials). That agroecology should also be free from reliance on routine tillage is not yet so widely appreciated, however one has only to glance at the floor of any mature natural ecosystem to see what nature has to say on the subject. Tillage is best accomplished by worms and other burrowing critters.

Routine tillage excepted, most other gardening techniques can be used, and most (perhaps all) of these can be performed by robotic machinery. Because the qualities that differentiate robotic systems from ordinary mechanical equipment are exactly what the new, intensive approach will call for, and because the scale of agriculture dwarfs most other enterprises, the necessary, if gradual replacement of existing equipment described above represents a tremendous opportunity for roboticists and robotics companies, and a guarantee that work invested to bring it about will remain relevant for a long time to come.

This post is the third in a series. (Part 1, Part 2)

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