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Will human input be superfluous in the digital farming era – lessons from aviation disasters.

Richard Heath - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The promise of large productivity gains through digital agriculture are detailed in research to be released by the Australian Farm Institute on the 23rd of May. Productivity gains will be achieved through automation, more efficient use of inputs, and better decision making as a result of big data analytics. A romantic view of agriculture this is not, and many people raise concerns over what will happen to the “art” of farming. So how important will human input into farming be in the future? Can recent air disasters give us some clues?

On the 1st of June 2009, Air France flight 447 tragically plunged into the Atlantic Ocean on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris killing all 228 passengers and crew. The cause of the crash has been determined to be pilot error brought on initially by confusion about air speed data. Pitot tubes, which measure the aircrafts airspeed were obstructed by ice crystals causing the autopilot to disengage. The pilots then incorrectly increased altitude causing an aerodynamic stall from which the aircraft did not recover.

The last words of the pilot recorded by the black box flight recorder moments before the aircraft hit the water were “but what’s happening”. Tragically, everyone in the cockpit had become so focused on contradictory and confusing data that they did not think to react to the environment happening around them and revert to basic training and flying skills that would have saved the aircraft.

In contrast to this incident, the reactions of the flight crew of Qantas flight 32 from Singapore to Sydney on the 4th June undoubtedly averted one of the biggest aviation disasters of all time. Shortly after take-off from Singapore a turbo disc in one of the planes four engines explosively disintegrated causing massive damage to the operating systems of the aircraft. Of the three engines remaining only one was functioning correctly and the hydraulic and electrical systems had largely failed.

Richard Champion de Crespigny, the captain of QF32, and his crew managed to safely land the massive aircraft back at Singapore’s Changi airport largely because while taking on-board the data being delivered to them by the planes compromised electronic systems, they made decisions based more on the perceived environment around them rather than what the data was saying. The crew realised that in an unprecedented situation such as the one they were in; the computerised systems would just not be able to deliver the correct results.

Automation, digital systems, and computerised decision support have made modern airflight safer and cheaper than ever before. Sometimes however, human intervention in the interpretation and use of the data being received is what keeps planes in the sky.

Digital agriculture will deliver through data analytics a level of understanding of agricultural production systems far beyond what we have known. Decision support systems based on this increased understanding will challenge conventional wisdom and the “art” of farming. Just like flights AF447 and QF32 however there will always be situations where data about a particular farming scenario is compromised in some way. The “art” of farming will be in recognising when the data is compromised and understanding what the correct course of action should be.

Digital agriculture will still need farmers and they will still need to be as skilled and attuned to their environment as they have ever been.

 
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