The measure of a task
When measurement is refined breakthroughs follow, and not all of them predictable, says Paul Hearns
1 November 2019 | 0
There is a simple fact in the evolution of human research and understanding. Every time there is an improvement in our ability to measure something, there follows a flourishing of discovery and development.
Mathematician, author and broadcaster Professor Marcus du Sautoy’s three part documentary for the BBC Precision: The Measure of All Things elegantly documents the passage from hand made engineering at the start of the Industrial Revolution, through to nanotechnology, charting how the improvement in measurement in various fields opened up new possibilities for both research and technological development.
From the metric system and its repeatable, independently verifiable units of measure, to the advent of laser technology, each development provided the basis for a deeper understanding through greater precision. Through precision came the possibility for mass production, and reliability in engineering.
Du Sautoy’s documentary also charts the fact that as a new field flourishes from a development in measurement, whether in methods or precision, new uses and technologies also develop. The light detection and ranging technique known as LiDAR was originally developed to help with space object handling, whether satellite capture or ISS docking. It has now revolutionised archaeology, as it has helped develop to reveal artefacts and features hidden beneath the ground’s surface.
Another wonderful example of this effect was the seminal detection of gravitational waves in 2015. When the LIGO and Virgo projects declared success in proving Einstein’s predictions from 1915, the refinements of the instruments led to many more detections of gravitational waves, from evermore interesting sources. Colliding black holes and terrifyingly fast binary neutron stars were detected for their ability to warp space time in radiating waves. The same effect was seen with extra solar planets, which went from the first detection in 1992, to some 4,000 detections today, and steadily growing.
This very same effect is now being seen with a combination of technologies that are set to have foreseeable and unexpected impacts in the near future: Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G.
The improvement in sensor technology, not just in precision, but also low power, durability and connectivity has allowed unprecedented improvements in very simple things that can have a potentially tremendous effect for humanity and the environment.
A Swiss firm called Ecorobotix has developed a set of autonomous robots that can monitor and tend crops in such a manner as to reduce by several orders of magnitude the need for pesticide, fungicide and fertilisers.
Through the use of 5G connectivity with its high bandwidth and low latency, the company has been able to develop a robot that can work entirely unaided for hours at a time in the crop field, travelling between the rows of plants targeting weeds with either physical intervention or highly accurate application of weed killer.
Gone is the need for mass spraying on many crop types, particularly market garden produce. The solar powered rover is light, meaning there is no soil compaction, while its ability to have high bandwidth, low latency connectivity allows it to remain simple, while the real processing is done elsewhere. High definition cameras and sensors send the information to a central processing unit to determine whether what it is looking at is a weed or a crop plant. It then is instructed how to deal with it. Remove it or target it with a high precision jet of the appropriate herbicide.
Ecorobotix claims that spraying can be reduced by more than 90%, but with the added benefit of zero overspray. The benefits for the environment are enormous as there is almost zero chance of blow over or contamination of water ways. Production is also improved, and the need for fertiliser is also reduced as there is less competition for resources.
Furthermore, the company has developed monitoring drones that use multispectral analysis to assess the state of densely grown crops or pasture. Again, centralised processing facilitated by 5G-enabled connectivity allows the build up of a complete picture of the state of health of the crop or pasture.
Fertiliser or over-seeding can be specifically targeted with drones on the ground, reducing the amount of resources used by orders of magnitude, but also removing the need for heavy machinery to traverse the fields, compacting soil and reducing the usable area of productive ground.
The overall effect is for the ground to remain more productive, requiring less intervention by humans and less chemical application. This means higher yields and lower impact on the environment as a whole.
Soil compaction due to heavy machinery is actually a significant problem. According to Dr Thomas Anken, head of digital production, Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Switzerland, soil compaction can lead to accelerated soil erosion and/or water logging. A methodology known as controlled traffic farming was developed from monitoring and measurement to optimise pathways for machinery, reducing the traffic and ground covered. A GPS controlled agricultural machine, with an accuracy to 2.5 cm, can be directed to drive on a specific track, without any loss of coverage.
This technology can also be applied to irrigation, targeting areas that need it, dramatically reducing the resources necessary to address specific needs.
From dairy, beef and sheep herd monitoring, to agricultural and gardening needs, the combination of IoT and 5G is revolutionising food production, with huge benefits for producers and the environment.
One might expect that this would lead to a major cost increase, whereas Ecorobotix say that their drone technology is up to 30% less expensive than similar, manually controlled plant machinery.
And the applications do not end there.
A company called China Molybdenum already has a remote mine where the heavy plant machinery is IoT-enabled and 5G-connected, meaning that those dirty, dangerous, difficult and distasteful jobs can be done remotely from the safety of an offsite facility.
Ports too have been revolutionised by automation. Again, in China, the port of Yangshan is fully automated and even makes the bold claim of being “zero emissions”.
The potential benefits for this combination of technologies is enormous, and to a certain extent, unpredictable.
New use cases are popping up all the time, with possibility for new insights at every turn. While concerns remain for privacy, ethics and safety, the possibilities are simply too precious to ignore.