Space technology finds an earthy, earthly purpose
BREEDING chickens on a large scale isn’t rocket science. It is much harder. The birds are bad at regulating their body temperature, and the big sheds they are kept in can get stuffy. Flickering lights and loud noises make them anxious. And ammonia from the faeces of birds crammed tightly together often produces unedifying “hock burns”. All of which means they require constant monitoring to ensure they are gaining weight. But babysitting chickens is time-consuming. A single worker can hope to weigh only a small sample by hand each week. Remotely monitored scales can help but, even when wheeled back and forth on pulleys, they suffer from blind spots.
Now an answer to these problems has come from a surprising place: Mars. Thrive Multi Visual, an agritech startup from Shropshire, is devising a chicken-weighing robot based on the rover developed by NASA to explore the red planet. The company plans to kit out the vehicle with cameras that can weigh chickens by sight alone. Thermal-imaging gear and other gadgets will monitor indicators such as body-heat and humidity. An indoor GPS system, also adapted from space technology, will allow the robot to drive itself around and self-charge, while sensors will prevent it from running over laggards that are slow to strut out of its way. If it works, the chicken rover will greatly reduce the work involved in looking after the birds—handy for farmers fearing labour shortages after Brexit.
Thrive MV is one of seven companies supported by the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre UK, just outside Harwell, an Oxfordshire village. Twenty such centres have been set up across Europe since 2000 to nurture young tech firms devising down-to-earth uses for space technology. In Britain each company receives technical support from ESA scientists for a year, as well as help with networking and cheap office space in Harwell, which is now home to around 80 space-related companies. The centre, which was set up in 2011, saw its 60th company graduate in August.
A surprising number of the firms are applying space technology to farming. Agritech startups comprise more than half the current cohort in Harwell. These include HayBSee, which is making autonomous drones that can detect unhealthy patches in crop fields and kill weeds. Another, GroundData, makes solar-powered sensors that gather data about potato plants. Beyond agriculture, techies are using space gear to make snazzy bike bells, spot doctored photographs and find bed bugs in hotel rooms.
There are several reasons why so many farming startups are repurposing space hardware. One is that farmers are slow to adopt new technology, leaving gaps for enterprising geeks to exploit. The sector suffers especially from paltry data collection. Another is that space technology is very robust and designed to withstand toxic substances, making it ideal for life on farms, says Claire Lewis, chief executive of Thrive MV. She believes that agriculture is nowhere near as “tech-enabled” as it should be. Could her company and its fellow “incubatees” tame this final, farming frontier?
本文所在刊物目录：经济学人精读 | 2018年9月1日刊目录打赏