Industry Disrupted: The Impact of Automation on Agriculture

Artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, robotic vacuums… The last decade has given rise to phrases and concepts with the power to redefine how we live and work. While experts debate whether these new technologies are good or bad for society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) suggests that automation and robotics have the potential to solve one of the world’s most urgent and fundamental problems: food security.

While steam-powered tractors, cross-cultivation, and other agricultural advancements have minimized the risk of sharp famine for many nations, that could quickly change. With the world population expecting to surpass 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050, food demand will rise in parallel. Experts project that we will need 70 percent more food than is consumed today by 2050.

We need an agricultural revolution if we hope to sustain our staggering numbers, and automation might just be the ticket. Farmers, researchers, and equipment companies have already begun experimenting with robotics in the field by developing machines that can boost agricultural production and efficiency across various stages of food production.

Here is a snapshot of some of the ways automation is already revolutionizing farming.

The “Bots and the Bees” for Planting and Pollination

Long gone are the days when farmers had to hand-sow every seed: tractors have simplified the process for decades. Until recently, however, those tractors needed human drivers who were susceptible to the elements and fatigue, not to mention the inconvenience of only being able to operate one machine at a time. Those days might soon be behind us.

In Action: Robotic Pollinators

The robotics field is also making inroads in another key area of cultivation: pollination. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that bees pollinate a full 80 percent of flowering plants, including 75 percent of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that we consume each year. Unfortunately, bee populations have declined dramatically in the last decade.

Hand-pollination is possible, specifically with squash and a few other crops, but it is laborious and impractical. According to some researchers, fully autonomous robots could be the solution. These robots would be able to cross-pollinate plants with little-to-no human oversight. Some of these machines are flying drones that mimic insects while others, like West Virginia University’s BrambleBee, are ground-based machines with robotic arms and tools that allow precision pollination. If deployed at scale, autonomous robotic pollinators could minimize the detrimental effects of colony collapse.

In Action: Autonomous Tractors

Successful Farming published a profile on engineer and farmer Kyler Laird, who designed an autonomous tractor to plant his crops to boost his productivity. Robots can work long hours, operate in extreme weather, and work together as fleets. With companies like John Deere and Case IH developing similar technology, it is only a matter of time before farmers send robots into the field.

Major companies like Fendt and the Autonomous Tractor Corporation have already invested millions of dollars in researching self-driving tractors with various levels of artificial intelligence autonomy. Case IH Agriculture recently revealed its concept for a self-driving tractor so independent that it does not even have a seat. Fendt’s GuideConnect technology lets driverless tractors mirror the movements of a human-driven guide tractor, allowing single operators to control a fleet of machines. Though not a tractor in the traditional sense, French Naio Technologies’ Oz robot uses lasers and cameras to navigate between rows of crops and can distinguish between different types of plants and weeds.

Farming with Drones and Intelligent Sprayers

While machinery helps farmers accomplish basic tasks faster, agriculture is still a very hands-on industry. Traditionally, if a producer wants to ensure a good yield, he or she must carefully monitor crops to identify and respond to signs of drought, disease, or poorly-fertilized soil.

Experts hope to change that with strategically-deployed drones that can monitor crops on a wide scale and smart sprayers that can observe soil and plant health, water the crops, and apply chemicals or fertilizers as needed. These controlled environment agriculture (CEA) technologies allow speedy and targeted solutions to common agricultural woes, reducing herbicide and water use significantly.

In Action: Smart Farming

In 2018, John Deere made headlines when it acquired the agricultural start-up Blue River Technology (BRT). Its robots use machine learning and advanced vision systems to analyze crops and apply herbicides in a targeted way. According to BRT, these smart sprayers can cover 12 rows of crops simultaneously at a speed of up to 8 miles per hour. Even more impressive are BRT’s claims that its tech can reduce agrochemical use by 90 percent. In addition to being more efficient and cost-effective, reduced spray bodes well for human health and the environment.

High-Tech Harvesting with Dexterous Machines

Harvesting is one of the most tedious stages of farming. While tractors can reap and thresh some crops pretty easily, tasks like grape- and apple-picking call for sophisticated, fine-motor animation and a discerning eye. Because of this, picking remains one of the least developed areas of agricultural robotics.

That said, at least one company has stepped up to the challenge. According to the New Food Economy, Abundant Robotics developed the world’s first robotic apple picker with all of the visual processing and delicate movement that the task requires. Eventually, autonomous picking technology will expand beyond the orchard and into coffee fields, vineyards, and much more.

In Action: Smart Harvesting

California-based Iron Ox is one of the first U.S. farms to embrace full-cycle automation. This hydroponic farm aims to produce 26,000 heads of leafy greens each year and is staffed almost exclusively by robots. Iron Ox also uses cloud-based artificial intelligence to monitor nitrogen levels, temperature, moisture, the location of robots, and more.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, Hands Free Hectare has successfully completed least two harvests, from planting to harvesting, without a single person entering the field.

The Future of Autonomous Agriculture: What About the Humans?

The technology featured above might give one the impression we are on the verge of a fully automated agricultural system. However, farmers surveyed by Case IH indicated that while they are optimistic about machines tackling limited chores, they are less enthused by the prospect of robots planning and planting crops—tasks that set the stage for the entire season.

Mark Young, CTO of The Climate Corporation, told Successful Farming that he thinks it is unlikely that robots will replace farmers anytime soon, though their promise of efficiency and easing resource constraints suggest that they most certainly have a place in the field—pun intended. Another expert, Yael Edan, a professor at Agricultural, Biological and Cognitive (ABC) Robotics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, concurs.

“We don’t expect these robots to completely replace humans in the fields,” Edan told Digital Trends. “We expect them to help with tasks humans can’t and don’t want to do.” Nonetheless, Edan estimates we will see broader adoption of agro-bots in commercial farming over the next five years.

Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler
Writer

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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