Mechanised farming in desert areas

I’ve been thinking recently about an engineering problem that I started considering a number of years back.  The challenge is fairly straightforward; in various parts of the world, such as Australia, there are large desert wildernesses that are essentially unlivable, but which contain vast amounts of sunlight, and land.

This suggests that one should theoretically be able to set up a series of solar energy plants to power, say, one or several massive mechanised agricultural operations.  There are certain small pilot examples where this model has already been demonstrated to work.  For instance, Sundrop Farms at Port Augusta in South Australia.  Their operation relies on solar power, proximity to the ocean, and is partly though not completely automated.

Ultimately, however, it could well be a good goal to aim to pipe water from the sea to support intensive agriculture in greenhouses many miles from open water.  This could be achieved through using solar power and batteries in many areas.  Such operations could be monitored, maintained, and harvested by drones operated by artificial intelligence.  The logistics of transporting goods to ports or highways could also be managed by autonomous machines, potentially with refrigerated interiors.  Container vessels could then transport produce as trade to regions that required such.

There are many small problems that need to be solved here though in order for something like this to be practicable at large scale.  In particular it needs to be possible to build and maintain such infrastructure autonomously.  This will require advances not only in renewable energy (which we largely already have in wind, solar, and lithium batteries), but also in robotics and artificial intelligence.  I suspect that the latter two technological categories mentioned will largely be mature enough for this sort of operation by 2030.

I think that it would be worthwhile to try to build small first and then expand, though – with potentially many, many ventures in different arid regions or locations – rather than waiting for things to become completely mature.  Although I dare say that that is where the commercial reality is, regardless.

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