4 Ways Robotics Affect Agriculture Now & in the Future
Richard van Hooijdonk
Farmers are turning to technology to address a number of pressing problems, such as the growing global shortage of food and labor. Artificial intelligence, field sensors, and data analytics are some of the advanced systems used in that endeavor, but the one area in which these technologies converge is robotics. Agricultural robots, sometimes known as agribots, are seen as one of the key trends that will deeply influence agriculture in 2019.
For example, they will help farmers address the issue of a dwindling workforce and allow them to work more efficiently while saving money on labor. Advanced robotic systems will also take care of and harvest plants, as well as carry out on-farm data collection, increasing crop yields. Several robots that can carry out some of these operations are already available, while many others will hit the market soon. As agricultural robots become a permanent fixture on many farms, the value of the market is expected to reach $12.8 billion by 2022.
1. Robots will address a farmworker labor shortage
A defining feature of agriculture in the U.S. is a decrease in the available agriculture workforce. This problem prompted the development of crop-harvesting robots, such as those made by Harvest CROO Robotics. Systems like these have a workload capacity similar to that of 30 human workers.
The capabilities of these machines are impressive, but they inevitably lead to the fear that robots will replace any remaining farm workers. But in this article, agriculture researcher Jonathan Gill said, “The jobs have already been lost. What we’re trying to actually do is increase the skill level that farm workers will have, where they’ll become a fleet manager overseeing the autonomous vehicles.”
Farmers also expect that robots will decrease wages and other labor costs, which constitute around 40% of farm costs in the U.S. alone. Ramsay Highlander makes robotics systems that might deliver this benefit.
For example, its lettuce-harvesting robot costs $750,000, but the company’s CEO, Frank Maconachy, said it pays for itself within the first year. Because it requires only a small number of workers to take care of it, the potential savings are significant.
These examples illustrate the ways in which robots are expected to change agriculture in 2019 and provide farmers with an inexpensive and efficient replacement for the human workforce. But the potential benefits from cutting-edge technology don’t stop there.
2. More plants will be harvested and cared for by robots
Several companies are working on advanced technologies that can perform tasks such as caring for and harvesting plants. For example, Fendt’s Xaver robot, expected to ship next year, can perform tasks such as planting and fertilizing corn, as well as weed control and scouting operations.
San Diego-based Vision Robotics is developing robots that will perform “thinning,” a process that ensures that seeds are sufficiently spaced apart during planting, enabling crops to grow faster.
Robots are also set to help farmers by preventing some of the $43 billion in losses created by herbicide-resistant weeds. Blue River Technology is already selling its See & Spray robot, marketed as an efficient weed-spraying machine. The acquisition of this company by John Deere means farmers can expect further improvements to this robotic system.
Advanced harvesters, while not officially robots, are helping farmers achieve huge savings. For example, a new grape-harvesting vehicle made by French firm Pellenc can harvest 15 to 20 tons of grapes per hour, equivalent to a workload carried out by 30 human pickers. The harvester also removes most of the grape’s leaves, ensuring that farmers get clean fruit.
Farmers can expect that additional robotic harvesters designed to pick apples, strawberries, and many other types of fruits and vegetables will be available for agriculture in 2019.
3. Robotics will increase crop yields
To ensure that increasingly efficient machines have plenty of plants to harvest, several companies have developed robots that rely on data gathering and analysis to increase crop yields.
For example, the TerraSentia robot developed by EarthSense can autonomously move through fields and measure various plant parameters using advanced sensors, reporting back to human operators as it analyzes the crops.
On top of that, it will eventually be able to detect common plant diseases. That data will be valuable to scientists, as they will know which environments and conditions produce the best plants. The TerraSentia robots could, for example, go into a field, analyze the plants, and inform scientists on which plants are the strongest and healthiest.
4. Farmers will spend more time on the business of farming
Farmers are increasingly relying on robots to solve their labor shortage and meet a growing demand for food. These advanced systems enable labor and time savings, as well as increased crop yields, proving that technological progress is permeating all parts of our lives.
Many farmers are welcoming the change, perhaps best summed up by Saskatchewan-based farmer Kim Keller:
“It’s sort of like the old adage: You’re able to spend a little bit less time in your business and a little bit more time on your business.”