The Role of Engineering in Agriculture: First Prize – Engineering

Steven Liu wrote this essay as part of the AgriEducate Essay Competition, winning first prize in the Engineering/IT category. For the full list of results please head over to the results page. Each week we’ll be featuring a new essay from the winning group of 15!

Since ancient Egyptian times, agriculture and engineering have worked together to feed humanity, enabling us to prosper. Through engineering, innovative technologies applied to agriculture have enabled farmers to become more efficient in terms of both land and labor. Engineering is the practice of applying scientific discoveries to real world situations, by creating new tools and ways of doing things. There are many different types of engineering, including mechatronic (mechanical and/or electronic) engineering, software engineering, chemical or biological engineering, and civil or structural engineering.

Mechatronic engineering is concerned with the interaction between artificial systems and the physical and natural environment. Mechatronic engineers work with manned and unmanned vehicles, from simple tractor-towed farming implements to complex autonomous agricultural robots. Existing systems such as the ACFR’s RIPPA[1] robot uses GPS and chlorophyll sensors and implements to destroy weeds, sow seeds and irrigate plants, enhancing labour productivity on farms and resource productivity by saving seed, fertiliser and herbicide. Reductions in resource consumption and solar power mean that these vehicles are environmentally sustainable. Research is currently directed at making mechatronic farming implements cheap and scalable enough to be accessible to all farmers, including in third world countries, to modernise agriculture and improve global food security. Other future opportunities for mechatronics engineering applied to agriculture include completely automatic agricultural robotics which could raise a crop from seed to harvest with minimal physical interaction from the farmer.

Software engineering is concerned with data storage and security. Within the scope of agriculture, software engineers help design data storage systems for record keeping of livestock. Blockchain technology is a current technology that provides the opportunity for vastly increased data security and availability. When applied to agriculture, blockchain based data storage could replace current physical records such as the NLIS with electronic records which are significantly more secure, failsafe and easy to manage. Blockchain works via distributed data storage, meaning there is no central point of failure. Within blockchain, smart contracts and other tools can be used to allow farmers to process transactions of both funds and livestock with greater transparency, less risk, and improved productivity. In a blockchain-integrated world, transparent access to consumer data could provide better marketing opportunities for farmers, increasing the efficiency of food distribution.

Chemical and biological engineering refers to technologies such as genetic modification. These techniques have already been employed in crops such as BT cotton, and will continue to play an integral role in Australian agriculture. Currently, the TALEN[2] gene modification technique allows plant crops including cotton and wheat to be precisely genetically modified, enabling genetic advances against natural pests and diseases to be made. However in larger animals current genetic technologies including viral insertion have not been precise enough to be effective. With CRISPR technology, a new level of precision in gene editing is available; enabling genes to be added to larger livestock. This may lead to similar disease resistant species of cattle or sheep, or new species of animals which may produce hormones or other medicinal products, increasing the value of their production. In the future advanced genetic engineering could produce entire new species of animals which cause less environmental damage compared to traditional breeds by producing less gaseous waste and being more nutrient efficient, increasing sustainability. Breeding of hardier animals more tolerant to extreme or poor conditions could also be accelerated by genetic engineering, increasing the landmass available for raising animals, improving food security.

Civil and structural engineering is crucial for developing infrastructure for transportation of agricultural goods. However modern structural engineering also enables the construction of large scale vertical gardens, which could revolutionise agriculture by providing a self-contained growing environment free from pests and weeds. Such structures could be placed in urban centres or have urban centres built around them, allowing farmers to escape social isolation in agricultural towns with ever decreasing populations. A vertical farm implemented by silicon valley company Plenty claims to multiply land productivity by 350x[3], and use only 1% of the water requirements of a traditional farm through recycling. Such vertical farms could be built in extremely arid areas at minimal costs for farmers, and vastly increase the amount of viable agricultural land, improving food security. Water use reduction also improves the sustainability of farms and their integration into existing natural ecosystems, reducing the pressure on natural waterways.

Aerospace and space engineering includes the development of UAV’s (unmanned Aerial Vehicles) as well as communications and imaging satellites. These can be used for remote monitoring of crops, as well as large scale imagery for planning and analysing farms. Communications satellites also enable technologies such as GPS-based automation and broadband to make urban comforts more available to farmers. UAV’s in particular are progressing towards higher weight limits and flight times, allowing them to be more useful in taking aerial photographs for data analysis, or for crop irrigating, crop spraying and animal herding. By providing low cost and high accuracy farm-scale imaging, farmers can better analyse and plan farm operations such as fertiliser operations, increasing productivity of limited farm resources and mitigate the environmental impact of agriculture. Additionally, by increasing the range and capabilities of automated agriculture, farmers can increase labour productivity. On a broader scale, better analysis of climatic trends using satellite data could help long-term planning in agriculture, leading to improved global food security.

Fundamentally, engineering is about using human ingenuity but working within the scope of the environment to solve problems. When applied to global food security, humanitarian engineering specialises in promoting agriculture in third world countries. In such cases the scale, level of technology, and environmental challenges are significantly different to those faced when improving existing agriculture. Humanitarian engineers work with minimal capital to provide simple yet effective systems to promote global food security; providing projects such as Engineers Without Borders Australia’s partnership with ATEC biodigesters[4] which provide a source of fertiliser as well as cooking gas from biowaste.

Overall, engineering will continue to facilitate and modernise agriculture, leading to increases in productivity and sustainability, helping farmers to feed the world.

References

1. University of Sydney (2017). Australian Centre for Field Robotics. https://sydney.edu.au/engineering/our-research/robotics-and-intelligentsystems/australian-centre-for-field-robotics.html. Accessed 28 Mar. 2018].

2. West, J. and Gill, W. (2016). Genome Editing in Large Animals. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 41, pp.1-6.

3. Roberts, D. (2018). This company wants to build a giant indoor farm next to every major city in the world. [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/energy-andenvironment/2017/11/8/16611710/vertical-farms [Accessed 28 Mar. 2018].

4. ATEC biodigesters. (2018). https://www.atecbio.com/ [Accessed 28 Mar. 2018].

 

Author: Steven Liu

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