The convergence of two technologies: Xenobots and Smart Dust

Crop production has always depended on the producer’s ability to adapt and react to growing conditions. They are applying the right effort or product to make sure their crop meets its maximum yield potential.

The convergence of two burgeoning ag technologies — ones still far from commercialism or wide availability — can make this traditional thought process a thing of the past completely and it comes in the form of dust. That’s right, observing a field condition like a bug or weed infestation, then reacting to prevent it from robbing a crop’s yield can one day be replaced by literal clouds of dust.


The first component: Xenobots

Right now, they are simple multicellular “living robots” made from frog embryo cells. Depending on which type of cells are used, “xenobots” can perform basic functions. Heart cells contract and relax like the smooth muscle that enables the whole organ’s function, while skin cells produce a xenobot with a rigid structure. Other xenobots — all of which are around one millimeter in length — can do things like traverse through water using paddle-like appendages and transfer a small cargo.

A xenobot is the product of an evolutionary algorithm. It’s basically the product of applying artificial intelligence to supercharge the natural selection process. An evolutionary algorithm can facilitate a vastly larger number of genetic combinations and mutations. This is via the creation of a massive volume of different crosses that would take nature much longer to accomplish.

Much like what the “gene gun” did for crop plant breeding, evolutionary algorithms help researchers conduct years’ worth of research in a much shorter amount of time, ultimately zeroing in on the highest-value output much more quickly. Now, when a specific genetic combination yields a xenobot that can perform a specific function, finding that combination for future replication will be much quicker and easier via an evolutionary algorithm.


The second component: Smart Dust

Sensors have been a part of agriculture for a while now, and one of the newer ways to apply increasingly inexpensive and small simple electronic machines is in creating “smart dust.” Single-purpose sensors just a couple of millimeters in length can be deployed en masse in what will become the digital 21st century equivalent of a swarm of locusts, only these will benefit crops, not destroy them. Companies are already working on machinery “swarms” that deploy large numbers of small machines like tractors and drones, so smart dust will be a product of these two trends already well underway.

For example, a “cloud” of smart dust sensors with a singular focus can “blow through” an area. This collects different types of data relating to crops or the environments in which they’re growing. If those sensors pick up on the photosynthetic signature that indicates the presence of weed pressure, or a heat signature indicating the presence of a specific insect pest, they can enable producers to take treatment action more quickly without ever having to enter the field to scout those pests in the traditional way.


Adding them together

Now, throw xenobots and smart dust together, and what do you get? The partially autonomous smart dust, with xenobots hitching a ride on each sensor (remember wing walkers?), can identify a specific field variable for which the resolution is held by its “passengers.” Say the xenobot has been engineered to carry a pesticide payload. When the smart dust sensors pick up on a specific insect pest’s heat signature, the connected xenobots can release their payload and apply the pesticide to control the bugs. And it all happens without a single intermediate advisory or agronomic decision-making step.

So, the combination of smart dust and xenobots can enable farmers to attend to common in-season agronomic issues automatically. Completed via a combination of “smart” autonomous tools. Either delivered by a human agronomist or placed along with the required infrastructure strategically around the countryside. It can make many agronomic decisions common today foregone conclusions for farmers in the future. Out of sight, out of mind!

The thought process will then become:

  • What insects and weeds should I expect in my fields?
  • What products do I need to have on hand my xenobots can deliver when needed?
  • When do I deploy my smart dust?
  • Did my smart dust get the job done?

The scouting and treatment decisions necessary today will no longer be part of the process in the future. Those decisions can be made based on basic research and preparation ahead of time, and thorough assessment.


What’s it mean for agrimarketers?

Seed and chemical companies today spend millions advertising their crop protection traits and products to farmers today. It’s all about how those products fit into an agronomic management strategy. This is based on the farmer’s ability to adequately react to things like weed and pest pressures during the growing season. So, what happens when you remove those reactions from the agronomic equation altogether?

Companies will instead focus on how the other parts of the agronomy thought process will contribute to purchase decisions. Features of a herbicide product that affect its application, for example, will no longer be considerations for farmers. Instead, a company may choose to focus on the composition of that product. As it relates to any potential interaction it could have with the tissue used to manufacture xenobots that will be delivering it to the field.

It will generally require offering a new type of customer education. Also, attention to how xenobot smart dust will deliver that product where it needs to be. For example, will current surfactants be feasible in the future? Answering these types of questions will be a prerequisite to the entire system delivering a new, smarter way to treat for agronomic challenges in the field.

What do you think? Too far off, or do you think we’ll see this in our lifetime? I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Let’s talk!

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