Food for thought:
Lombard Odier rethinks it with the FT
As a bank that’s survived more than 40 financial crises, Lombard Odier is fascinated by the way ideas germinate and lead to a world of possibilities.
That is why we are partnering the Financial Times in a three-part series on how to meet the food needs of the 21st century.
Below we hear from a scientist, who is figuring out how to grow food in space, and an engineer, who is finding new ways to help farmers gather data on their crops.
In space, on land, at sea as in banking, the challenge is the same: constantly adapt to a changing environment and find pioneering solutions.
It is no coincidence that Air, Earth and Water are the chapters of this series. When it comes to rethinking, we are always in our element.
After the founders of US drone maker PrecisionHawk were asked by a vineyard owner if their device could be used to scare away birds, they soon started seeing all sorts of new possibilities.
They realised drones could also be used for crop imaging - and at a bargain price. The conventional method of doing this with manned aircraft can cost $1,000 an hour. For that outlay, a farmer can now buy a drone outright.
Using its simple Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) which are equipped with a variety of sensors, PrecisionHawk’s drones can detect everything from irrigation levels to soil variation. They can even identify pest and fungal infestations that would otherwise be invisible.
The drones’ imaging sensors, including infrared and hyper-spectral, depict more than 100 channels of light that can reveal problem areas invisible to the human eye. Sensors can indicate that plants which still appear green to a farmer may, in fact, be under stress. The drones can also track changes in the crop over a long period of time, revealing trouble spots or opportunities for better crop management.
All you need to survey up to 300 acres per flight is the ability to throw the drone into the air. “Every year this technology becomes easier to use, more efficient,” says Neil Gabriel, data engineer at the company.It is not an exaggeration to say such drones are part of a new way of farming described variously as digital agriculture, Ag 3.0, precision agriculture or data-driven agriculture. Whatever you call it, this is a new era in which information is driving ever more efficient farming.
Drones such as those from PrecisionHawk are the spear tip for a host of information age innovations and efficiencies in sectors beyond agriculture. Insurance, oil and gas, environmental monitoring and emergency relief are all ripe for offering possibilities. Technology giants such as Google and Facebook, meanwhile, are experimenting with using multiple high-altitude UAVs to enable internet access in regions that lack the infrastructure to extend the web.
Sales of drones to hobbyists and for commercial purposes in the US are expected to rise from 2.5 million in 2016 to seven million in 2020, according to the Federal Aviation Authority.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, a non-profit organisation dedicated to advancing the use of drones, estimates that they could deliver economic benefits worth more than $80bn in the US alone over the next decade.
The total potential value of drone-powered solutions in all applicable industries is significant—more than $127 billion globally, according to a recent analysis by PwC, the professional services firm.
More important, the new capabilities they offer have the potential to transform lives.
“Imagine if we could find new sources of clean drinking water for the millions of people who need it, or track the effects of Climate Change giving agriculture the tools to adapt,” says Gabriel.
“We have developed the ability to see the world in a way that was science-fiction even five years ago.”
Video can be downloaded here:
With the global population forecast to be almost ten billion by 2050, the idea of moving to Mars could catch on. But if this science-fiction fantasy does become reality, what sort of diet could the first settlers expect?
For decades, US space agency Nasa, and its partners have sent orbiters, rovers and landers to Mars to test whether it would be possible to live and work on the planet. NASA’s plan is to send humans to low-Mars orbit in the early 2030s.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk believes he will have us treading the red planet by 2024. He is busy directing engineers at his rocket venture SpaceX to design the rockets to boldly get us there.
To succeed, however, we must also work out how to take care of other more mundane essentials, such as filling the interplanetary salad bar.
A steady supply of fresh produce will be vital in keeping the first Martian voyagers healthy and their morale high. “The shelf life of [packaged] foods may not be long enough for a Mars mission and some of the nutrients might degrade over time,” says Gioia Massa, a project scientist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, making the provision of fresh food a mission-critical ingredient in successful Mars missions.
Massa is the lead scientist for Naas’s Veggie team, a project that includes Wisconsin-based Orbital Technologies, a national leader in aerospace systems, Purdue University and Johnson Space Center. Veggie offers a working model for growing vegetables in space and the system has so far produced fresh romaine lettuce and Zinnia flowers using LED lights.
The challenges of growing plants in space include ensuring they can grow in small spaces with a growth media suitable for their unusual environment. The plants were grown on “‘pillows” containing a growth media that includes controlled release fertilizer and a type of calcined clay used on baseball fields to increase aeration and encourage growth. “Veggie was designed to be very much an astronaut garden, so low mass, low volume, low power,” says Massa. “We have to be really productive.”
There is much research to be done however, to establish whether plants can thrive in the unique conditions of inter-planetary space such long-term exposure to cosmic radiation.
But there are also unique issues that will make it harder to produce food. “Without gravity you have no buoyancy, you have no convection, heat doesn't rise and fluids and gasses don’t mix well and that’s a challenge for plant growth,” says Massa. “It is pretty overwhelming. There are so many challenges that we have to overcome and like any area of science or technology development, you do one thing and it spawns ten new questions. There are just so many things we have to figure out.”
Answering such questions will also be vital to future long-term missions that stay on Mars. “The longer you stay on a place like Mars, you’ll want to grow more of your food,” she says. “So we just want to take these first steps for developing these food production systems.
“The plants will be doing other things too. They will be helping to recycle your atmosphere, clean your water and take care of your waste and you want to do that in ways that are sustainable.”
Working out what plants need in an ecosystem designed from scratch, including the complex colonies of and interactions between bacteria they may need to thrive, could offer new insights for farming on our own planet, too.
“It will be a wonderful thing for everybody here on Earth as well because we are going to learn so much about how to live sustainably as we try and develop this. I think that it’s going to benefit everyone.”
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