What Old MacDonald Is REALLY Doing Down on His Farm
Picture lush, waving fields of glittering emerald green cornstalks. Feel the heat of a sweltering Midwestern summer’s day. Take a deep breath, and inhale the distinctive, sticky-earthy-sweet-scent of corn tassels. Gaze across the miles and miles of fertile seal-brown earth and know that Old MacDonald’s farm is not far away.
Old MacDonald and his farm have always held an attraction for me. As a kid, I used to sing every word of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” yodeling as loudly as possible, the “EEE-I, EEE-I, O.” My sister and I would outdo each other with our animal imitations, clucking, mooing, neighing, quacking, oinking, and bleating in quick succession. We lived in a neighborhood, mind you, but the farms were not far away, and there was something about the story of Old MacDonald and his attendant animal friends that charmed me.
A half-century later, and I know that Old MacDonald’s Farm has not just animals, but ROBOTS!
EEEE-I, EEE-I, OH!
Now, I’m not just charmed by his farm-animal menagerie. I’m fascinated by the farmer’s open-arm welcome of the future, impacted by the robots who — like the cows and the chickens — are an integral part of what a farmer REALLY does down on the farm.
A cheeky little robot named TerraSentia
It’s not just animals anymore. Old MacDonald is out there working to increase crop yields for our ever-expanding population. Currently, 7.7 billion people inhabit the world, but experts predict that within 30 years, that number will grow to 9.7 billion, 2 billion more people to feed.
Old MacDonald needs help.
Enter a cute, little bot called Terra Sentia. A short, squat, little guy, he stands a foot tall, is a foot wide, weighs thirty pounds, and has high-resolution cameras on either side as eyes. Manufactured by a company called EarthSense in Champaign, Illinois, and tested in conjunction with the University of Illinois, TerraSentia rolls down the long crop rows, measuring the height, the stem diameter, the leaf size, and the “stand count,” a term for how many live producing plants there are.
All these numbers and figures enable farmers to tell which plant traits, or phenotypes, have the best yields. Farmers used to have measure plants and compile data by hand. With the introduction of robots like TerraSentia, the time spent tracking which phenotypes produce the best yield has been drastically decreased. What used to take eight years, now takes four.
I can’t help but envisioning a rolling army of robots — kind of a cross between the Storm-Troopers and R2-D2 — patiently plodding through rows and rows of verdant crops, prodding them, protecting them, and predicting their future. Watch out, Children of the Corn. You can’t hide here anymore!
TerraSentia is not the only farm-worker-robot that is changing the future of the farm. There’s OZ, a robot that eats weeds while measuring crops. There’s EcoRobotix, a solar-powered robot that identifies weeds and sprays them — and only them — with herbicide, working a twelve-hour shift without the need for any human. Bonirob is a robot that can distinguish the difference between weeds and plants. It then mechanically pounds the weeds back into the ground without hurting any of the crop, eliminating the need for chemicals that could stay on the plants or filter into the ground.
When I was a little girl, I thought farms were plots of vegetables and barns filled with all kinds of cool animals. Now I know that farms are so much more. They feed the world, fight the elements, contend with tariffs, and keep going in spite of the world around them. Old MacDonald is no longer a guy who feeds his animals, drives a tractor, plants his seeds, and hopes for the best.
The Old MacDonald of today depends on data and worries about increasing yields in a warming world where fields are turning into deserts and soil is being lost between 10 and 100 times faster than it’s forming. He’s adopting robots, bringing them into his flock so he can save the world from hunger.
EEE-I, EEE-I, OH!
People often say they wish they could see the future.
They can. It’s here. They just have to notice the changes around them and know that robots are — and will increasingly be — a productive, essential partner on farms and in every industry of the world.
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