A shift from a hunter-gatherer society to agriculture meant that people could settle and have greater control over their food sources. Drones and smartphones are starting to assist with and take over tasks of food production and distribution. Although our nutritional productivity could be greatly increased, how will technology impact our relationship with food?

Agriculture has been a data driven endeavor for decades, for example almanacs to plan harvests and more recently GPS to guide tractors. Through the use of drones, farmers are poised to collect more detailed and timely information about their crops and livestock. According to Ernest Earon, president of PrecisionHawk (via Co.EXIST), “Farmers will be able to produce more with less and … react to changing conditions much more quickly.” Drones can be tossed into the air by hand. Flying above equipped with multiple sensors, they can sense small changes in the environment. Farmers can respond more precisely, targeting just those crops that need to be fertilized or those animals that require medication.

Robotic help extends beyond the fields and into processing plants and even homes. Fish mongering is a terribly repetitive task, but one Norwegian company aims to provide a robotic assist. A team at SINTEF Fisheries and Agriculture is developing a system that uses lasers to scan incoming fish and determine the optimal cutting configuration, combined with a robotic arm that does the cutting. While the system is not as efficient as a human, refinements will likely yield worthy competition. In the home, Cargo, a Northern Ireland-based company, wants you to brew your own beer. Operated via smartphone, BrewBot will take much of the guesswork out of home brewing.

Once food has been produced, we need ways of getting it to hungry mouths. McDonald’s is testing a smartphone app that allows customers to order and pay for food. This concept will likely suit the on-the-go crowd. For sit-and-eat types, Chili’s is installing touchscreen tablets to allow customers to order more food. When Microsoft debuted its original Surface concept in 2007, restaurants were one of the primary markets. Customers would be able to learn about and order food, as well as split and pay the bill, all through a touchscreen embedded in the tabletop.

For those who wish to eat at home, there will be options for them, too. Google is entering the food delivery space with Google Shopping Express. Among other retailers, Google will deliver non perishable products from a range of stores. They will be joining heavyweights like eBay and Amazon as well as startups like TaskRabbits and Postmates. Each of these delivery systems, however, still relies on traditional delivery vehicles. Some believe the future of delivery is drones, for example Domino’s quadrotor delivery concept. There are many issues to resolve, but this concept could substantially reduce wait times.

For those with limited access to food, people may soon be able to print our food.

The algae is dispensed via inkjet-like printing, which Sawa has developed in partnership with Imperial College London. The Algaerium Bioprinter is an attempt to create a domestic “food farm” where particular algae combinations can be printed according to nutritional needs as part of a greater urban agricultural effort to fight food desert conditions. So while the fare itself might not sound appetizing, the amount of resources it could save sure do.

The use of drones and smartphones in the production and distribution of food raises many questions. How will we retrain the workers displaced by robots? Who will oversee the airspace in which thousands (or millions… or billions) of drones fly? How will printing food affect its nutritional content? Perhaps most importantly, how will the use of technology impact our relationship with food? In my opinion, we are already too disconnected with where our food comes from. Perhaps augmented reality could be used to show eaters how food is created and moved about. They could point their smartphones at a plate of food and see animations of the farmers planting, tending, and harvesting the crops that comprise their meal. Although technology has the potential to further disconnect us from our food, it might also bring us closer.



Image credit: Mauricio Lima


(This article first appeared in 2013; updated in 2018.)