IF YOU were being harsh, I guess you might say that it’s a bit of a man thing, having a hankering for the latest gadgets – with the term ‘boys and their toys’ often used to dismiss our fascination with technological innovation. And whilst this urge used to be limited to the confines of cars and the hi-fi stereo system, there’s no doubt that our love of gizmos has helped the hi-tech revolution gain a foothold in the farming industry – so much so that the agri-tech industry is predicted to become a $10bn industry over the next five years. But regardless of our deep-rooted urge to have the latest and fanciest bit of kit, GPS guidance, laser assist and auto-steer do have an undeniable role to play in improving efficiency of arable cropping around the country and the world. And this is just the start of a whole host of opportunities to be offered by precision farming. Figures just out show that it’s not only the hi-tech geeks amongst us who are signing up to the technology, though. There were 300,000 tractors fitted with autosteer or guidance sold in the course of 2016 – and this figure is predicted to more than double by 2027. But while our tractors might bristle with enough aerials, receivers and satellite dishes to have them mistaken for an outside broadcasting unit, I think that drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle) to give them their more official (and, let’s admit it, Captain Scarlet-sounding) name are probably the most desirable hi-tech items of the moment. Be honest – who hasn’t spent hours constructing an Airfix model, making paper darts, flying a kite or wishing they had a remotecontrol plane to fly? So, in a step outside the normal situation, I suspect that the demand for this aerial technology was probably there from the getgo – and the real work was to finding something useful for what it could do for us. But a report produced by the market research company, IDTechEx, has shown that while drones have been used to spray rice crops in Japan since the 1990s, the market is, pun intended, set to take off – as they become cheaper and diversify into providing different services. Now while I for one really, really want to witness the first official dog versus drone sheep gathering competition (are you listening organisers of Scotsheep 2018?), such notions aren’t for this page. Using this technology to monitor the state of crops and their health, their interaction with different soil types, their stage of growth, water stress levels, nitrogen requirements and even yield potential are all now practical propositions. Improvements in camera technology have also helped here, with the sort of definition previously only available to the military now being readily available off the shelf at a commercially reasonable cost. And a number of companies are now offering drone services as part of their agronomy package. But while the drones might represent our eyes and perhaps even ears in the sky, it’s likely to be up to robotics to do the actual hard graft. Again, a lot of developments are now either in the early throws or getting very close to being commercially available. Machines which can carry out general cultivations aren’t far away – but there is a widespread belief that we’ll have to move away from the ‘bigger is better’ ethos, which currently rules the roost. Not only would smaller machines be less damaging to the soil, they’d also be more nimble and agile at carrying out most tasks. It’s pretty much the case that the technology for driverless tractors is already available – and it’s only a lack of faith in the technology, together with uncertainty over the legal rules and regulations – which is holding back its adoption. Who’d want to own the first self-driving tractor to run over a rambler? The issue of insurance could also be interesting and I have wondered if that sector has looked into this area. At the moment you’re on a sticky wicket when making a claim if you haven’t locked a vehicle doors and removed the keys, so goodness knows what the situation will be if it was actually driving around a field on its own at the time it goes missing. And that was someone’s argument against the move towards miniaturisation, as – especially around urban areas – you often find that anything that can be lifted, will be lifted. Not yet quite well enough developed to be on the market, but currently well along the development trail are a number of robotic weeders. We may already have magic eyes which can let tractor-mounted hoes pick out weeds in drills. But autonomous robots which are left in the field to identify and then destroy weeds – either be pulling them out, a targeted spray of weed-killer or, as is being developed by one company which I can only guess isn’t based in Scotland, burning the weeds by the use of a magnifying glass – are all well into the prototype stage. And this could have farreaching consequences for various sectors of the industry – especially the suppliers of plant protection products as the need for herbicides and perhaps insecticides could become much reduced and careful targeting of chemicals could drastically cut the need for blanket application of fungicides. But, of course, another important aspect of much of the new technology is cost. And while the creation of bespoke technologies is always going to be expensive, once they gain critical mass their unit costs becomes much cheaper. If they can key into technology used in other systems already being produced for the mass market, then prices can drop very quickly. That’s been the case with basic navigation systems which can benefit from the sat-nav revolution in cars. But while the future looks bright for many of these technologies, a bonus might be the fact that a lot of them could be developed and tested in the UK. A recent conference highlighted the fact that after decades of neglect, a couple of years ago the governments were finally persuaded to carry out some investment into the near-market end of hitech research and ploughed £170m into incentives and new facilities. And, while the word may not yet be out in the field, we have a whole host of new agri-tech institutes in operation around the country, all working towards a more automated future. However, while they may be up and running, they don’t seem to have yet developed the communication side of their operations in order to get the word out to let farmers in the field know about them and their work. But let it be known that the arable pages of The Scottish Farmer are keen to help bridge this gap – and to highlight the latest developments in this area to an expanding audience. And if that doesn’t get