The growing significance of agricultural engineering

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the term agricultural engineering? Tractors? Irrigation? Grain silos? While these form an important part of this highly specialised branch of engineering, there’s a lot more to it – especially when it comes to sustainability. Let’s take a look.


What is agricultural engineering?

Agricultural engineering focuses on problem-solving and solution-finding for just about anything and everything related to agriculture. It includes, but isn’t limited to, the design and development of farming equipment, machinery and infrastructure, resource management and conservation, and finding ways to improve crop yields and reduce crop loss during processing. There are four main branches of agricultural engineering:

  • Farm power and machinery engineering focuses on farm mechanisation. 
  • Farm structures engineering develops animal shelters, crop storage, etc.
  • Soil and water control engineering addresses drainage, irrigation, conservation, flood control and more.
  • Electric processing engineering is concerned with the distribution of electric power and how, for example, lighting can be used to control plant growth.


The roots of agricultural engineering lie in the invention of large-scale irrigation, with the discipline gaining momentum during the industrial revolution which saw the invention of tractors, mechanical harvesters and planters. 

Today, technology plays a fundamental role in this field, with engineers working tirelessly to find innovative and sustainable solutions to some of the problems facing the agricultural sector and the planet. 

Robotic pollinators

According to Greenpeace, “Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops – which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition – are pollinated by bees.” With both managed and wild bee populations around the world under threat from pesticides, loss of habitat, global warming and the like, agricultural engineers are hard at work developing a solution. And the Delft University of Technology has made impressive strides towards one with its robotic bees. With a wingspan of 33 cm, their prototype may be 55 times the size of your average fruit fly, but as researcher Matěj Karásek told The Guardian in 2018, “I think within five to 10 years we will have the technology to make the drones much smaller and we could see them put to use in greenhouses.”

Driverless farm equipment

Self-driving cars have been in testing for decades. But did you know that there are prototypes of automated tractors being tested for agricultural environments? Self-driving machines could deliver significant advantages for farmers, including working around the clock to maximise productivity and freeing up skilled labour to work in other areas of the farm. And engineers aren’t stopping at tractors – self-driving seeders and harvesters are also in development and promise to deliver even greater benefits in the future.

Vertical farming

Current projections put the global population at around 10 million by 2050. And in order to feed this increased population, farmers are having to look at innovative and sustainable ways to make better use of natural resources, particularly land and water. Vertical farming is one option the agricultural sector is exploring to address the looming crisis, and Skyfarm is one of the proposed solutions. 

According to architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, “Skyfarm was initiated as a research project in response to the 2015 Milan Expo theme ‘feed the world’,” and was “designed to produce crops in multi-storey structures within high density urban areas or where there is insufficient land or poor quality soil.” This hyperboloid-shaped structure is constructed from bamboo, designed to maximise sun exposure and would include hydroponic, aeroponic and aquaponic systems. An added benefit of the design is “the ability to grow produce with a short shelf life, such as strawberries, spinach and lettuce, around the year and close to market without costly air-freighting.”

Do you have an agricultural project or challenge that requires a passionate team of engineers committed to developing and nurturing environmentally sustainable agricultural solutions? Lithon’s agricultural engineering team designs and engineers the infrastructure, equipment, processes and buildings for agronomic production. If you’d like to find out more about some of the projects we’ve worked on and how we can partner with you, get in touch with a member of our team today.