When the team at Tharsus Group wanted to consult an expert on agriculture automation, it realized there was only one person for the job. Prof. Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University is the utmost authority on the design and build of agricultural and horticultural robots.
John Hannah, robotics and autonomous systems (RAS) lead at Tharsus Group, recently chatted with Blackmore about all sorts of important issues — ranging from the big questions such as how to solve the food shortage crisis we’ll face mid-century, right down to the nitty gritty on farming and its future.
Below are excerpts from the first part of that agriculture automation interview.
Hannah: How do we feed 9.1 billion people by 2050? This question often attracts polarized views. Tackling a problem of such magnitude calls for the application of a range of methods, systems, and technologies. It is now widely accepted that R&D investment in new agricultural technologies like robotics is critical to satisfy the future demand for food sustainability.
How much is the introduction of agriculture automation part of the solution to making cultivation sustainable? Do you feel there’s enough investment going on at ground level to support this?
Blackmore: There’s investment going into things like plant breeding, biotechnology, and chemicals. The thing that hasn’t changed much in many years is the investment into new mechanization systems, and so a lot of the solutions that we have now are heavily reliant on chemicals. There is an increasing drive now by the environmental lobby to reduce or ban more and more active chemicals.
The interesting thing is that everybody is concentrating on these active agents, but in fact, there is nothing wrong with them. The problem is with the machine that applies them. The problems that occur are when all of these chemicals are applied off-target.
So when farmers are spraying the whole field, and only 10% of the spray actually goes onto the crop, or 1% when you’re talking about pesticides, then we’re getting huge wastage. It’s all of that wasted chemical that’s going into the groundwater and causing the problem.
As well as monetary investment, there’s also a need to invest some time into educating different communities surrounding the agricultural industry, including farmers and the government.
The farmers who are at the heart of this sector need to see with their own eyes how easy, adaptive, and efficient these new high-technology products can be. How strong the economics are that support them. The only way we do that is through demonstration.
The government, which is a key beneficiary of the agricultural industry, is starting to open up the lines of communication. It has recently published a report built on the evidence I gave at the House of Lords a couple of months back about autonomous vehicles, so bit by bit we’re trying to raise the government’s awareness of the opportunities here.
In fact, one of the outcomes highlighted in the report was that “robotic agriculture should be supported more by the government so long as the business case is made.”
Hannah: Total U.K. income from farming in 2015 was 29% lower than 2014, a fall of £1.5 billion to £3.7 billion [$1.94 billion to $4.78 billion] in real terms. The picture across the developed world is similar. With the cost of agriculture automation adoption is still relatively high, farmers need to believe in its long-term benefits and maybe even take a risk in deploying robots.
For what has been known as quite a conservative industry and given recent disappointing incomes, do you think farmers are in the right frame of mind to invest in agriculture automation?
Blackmore: Part of my work looking at why farmers adopt robotics in the U.K. is to do with economics. If a farmer has an expensive problem, like mechanical weeding or black grass, he or she will adopt it. However, it requires three areas to be satisfied:
First, it’s got to have embedded economics. Let me give you a good example of a piece of high-tech equipment that is going to be very successful because of its commercially robust economics. “Autosteer” on tractors is an investment of between £15-20k [$19,000 to $25,800] and gives farmers a positioning accuracy of 2cm [0.78 in.].
This provides farmers with precise data on where their tractors have been and minimizes the skip and overlap of applied treatments. Usual savings of employing this technology are between 10% to 15% on chemical expenditure, so many farmers can gain payback for it within just a few years.
Second, new technology needs to make the farmer’s life simpler. In the early days of my precision-farming work, the technology we created made farming more complex. So on that basis, many farmers rejected it.
Agriculture automation has to be developed like any other piece of equipment, like your smartphone. It has to be developed to a level of sophistication on the inside that makes it revolutionary. But it has to remain simplistic on the surface so people can just pick it up and use it without having to have a Ph.D. and an engineering degree to be able to understand it. The psychology of it is very important.
Finally, it has to have the embedded knowledge within it to allow it to do the jobs that you want it to do — in a smart way. GPS uses satellites to pinpoint location, but it would be incredibly difficult to explain the several data and timing signals of this technology because of its embedded nature within our smartphones and our cars. But it’s there and it’s doing its job.
Hannah: Bearing this in mind, do you think robotics as a service (RaaS) could help lower the barriers to entry for technology providers and speed up the widespread adoption of agriculture automation? Are there any examples of businesses that you’re aware of that are currently exercising this model?
Blackmore: Definitely. This is one of the hot topics of discussion in industry at the moment. It’s not a product — it’s a service. There are great reasons for doing this. With a product, you have to spend years conducting research, building the machines, testing them, and so on.
If you create products as a service, then the knowledge and the understanding of the product’s development can be done by the team in the field — in the commercial environment. Rather than farmers buying a tractor and having to understand the risks of the system and develop the expertise needed to run that tractor or chemical, they can just buy the service off the shelf.
So this model would allow a farmer to make an easy transaction — buying the absence of weeds, for example — and give the service company the opportunity to be able to do a lot of in-field testing and own the captured data.
The service company would then be able to gain an abundance of expertise on which is the right chemical to use. What’s the right dose rate, is this laser working, is this the right frequency, can we move faster, can we move slower?
If you look at precision-farming companies in the U.K., there’s Precision Decisions, Soil Essentials, and two or three others. They all offer services enabled by robotics and artificial intelligence. The model is there and it’s accepted. I would highly recommend agriculture automation creators to think about deploying robots through this kind of service model — because it gets products into market faster.
Hannah: So which sector is going to accept robots first?
Blackmore: This is an easy one for me to answer — it’s going to be row crops. So, high-value produce. We’re currently working with a company called Geez that supplies 60% of all fresh vegetables consumed by the general public in Great Britain. Agriculture automation is obviously big business for Geez, so we’re looking to come up with a machine that can help it be more efficient and sustainable.
Hannah: The size of total U.K. labor force in agriculture has remained static for the past five years. Numbers of seasonal, casual, and gang labor has remained fairly consistent at 67,000 employees over this period — most of whom are migrant labor. A simple calculation suggests this is costing U.K. farmers approximately £231 million [$298 million] if we assume a three-month season.
With the fallout from Brexit and the reverse osmosis of cheap migrant labor, do you think the government and private investors will have to support robotic technology in response to this political move?
Blackmore: Yes, absolutely. I had Andrew Legland from VTB Capital here a couple of weeks ago to showcase the various technologies that we’ve got. You’re also probably aware that we’ve just set up the Agri-EPIcentre now between Scotland’s Rural College, Cranfield University, and Harper Adams.
The center is a big new building here on campus which the government has put £18 million [$23 million] into as capital. If we put forward a strong enough business case to the government, it will continue to support this industry in developing exciting new projects and commercializing agriculture automation.
Hannah: According to the “Agriculture in the UK” report, total agricultural land usage in the U.K. hasn’t grown in the past five years. What does this mean for the role of automated vertical and hydroponic farms to increase potential output?
Blackmore: In my opinion, this is a great example of technology looking for an opportunity. So, vertical farming — they’ve deployed it effectively in Japan, in the middle of Tokyo. It works there because the cost of transporting lettuce from farms into central Tokyo takes at least three hours.
Coming back to your first question, how are we going to feed the planet, and where are we going to get this extra yield from? It’s going to come from robots. It’s not going to come from the big farms and fields — these environments are already very efficient because of their economies of scale.
But we’ve got thousands of hectares in the U.K. made up of small fields and farms that cannot take advantage of these same cost advantages. If robots can go into the small fields and get to the same level of efficiency as the big farms — not through economies of scale, but instead through what I call “intelligently targeted implements” — we can then make a lot of this marginal land sustainably intensified into producing more.
I think small machines running around on family farms and smaller fields will be able to increase production and yield. We will not bring any new land into production in the U.K. We don’t want to do that now; that’s the natural area, but less-productive lands can be made more productive.
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More on Agriculture Automation and British Robotics:
- Food Industry Use of Robotics to Grow Sharply
- EU, U.K. Automation Expert Says Robots Aren’t the Enemy
- First British Robotics Fund to Strengthen Local Industry, Commercialization
- InVia Robotics Releases Goods-to-Person System for Warehouse Automation
- Innovative Robot Services From ULC Avoid Breaking Ground
- British Robotics Must Catch Up With Global Competitors
- Robotics Innovation Gets Funding, Guidance From British Government
- The Internet of Things Takes Root in Agriculture
Hannah: Finally, which robotic applications do you think we’ll start to see emerge in the agricultural sector? Is it going to be autonomous tractors equipped with robotic implements farming broad-acre farms or swarms of smaller autonomous machines supporting the cultivation of horticultural produce?
Blackmore: Figuratively speaking, if we were to look across the hedgerow and into the next field — in the livestock sector — robot milking is now mainstream, and it has been for a while. It’s way more difficult to get a machine to interact with a cow than it is to get it to interact with a crop.
But this is an area that has fully accepted technology. People are still amazed by robots milking cows, but it is very much a mainstream activity that has been happening for years!
We do not have an equivalent in the cropping area. The longer this goes on, the more intense the vacuum becomes, increasing the need for these types of robots. I think that if we can build something that can deliver on those three factors of embedded economics, embedded knowledge, and embedded psychology, we can make farming sustainable, economical, and commercially prosperous in the U.K.
I don’t see any reason why we can’t just get on with it and build these things now!
Note: For the full interview, visit Tharsus.co.uk.