August 11, 2017      

Far from factories, warehouses, and households is another venue where automation is growing faster than many people realize — the farm. Global agriculture is in the midst of a rapid transformation, and the full impact of robotics, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence has yet to be realized. This presents an opportunity for those supplying and using agriculture robots.

The numbers are very impressive. In 2016, the market for agriculture robots was just over a $1 billion. By 2024, the revenue opportunity will grow to $74.1 billion, according to Tractica research. Automation is part of the solution to feeding more than 7.5 billion people.

While the revenue potential is huge for companies selling robotic equipment or services, what does it mean to farmers? What is the future of farming with robotics and AI for which you need to prepare?

Business Takeaways:

  • Agriculture robots are spreading rapidly for managing crops, picking fruits and vegetables, and dairy uses.
  • Innovations are making robots a viable solution to worker shortages, and precision agriculture and AI promise to increase productivity.
  • Business models and farming practices will need to be reviewed as automation affects global competitiveness.

Precision agriculture scrutinizes crops

In combination with the data gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, AI will soon be able to provide an analysis, leaf by leaf or crop by crop. You can decide which plants need more water or chemicals or need to be removed. Depending on how automated your farm is and how much you trust the system, some of those tasks can happen on their own. This is the promise of Prospera Technologies, a three-year-old Isreali firm that recently raised $15 million.

What if AI could tell which seeds and conditions will give you the maximum yield? The seed companies spend a lot of money on developing the “right seeds.” But until recently, only the biggest providers — such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta — could do this.

Agriculture robots and AI includes efforts to optimize seeds.

Beck’s Hybrids is applying AI to seeds.

Thanks to AI, Beck’s Hybrids, a family-owned business in Indiana, has entered the game. It is studying 30,000 corn seeds, along with several variables, to find the perfect seed for your land.

Precision agriculture is more than a new approach to farming. It is a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking about your land as hectares or acres, you can start thinking about it in feet, even inches. Instead of growing a single crop, you can plan different varieties. Instead of relying on intuition and past experience, you can use data and analytics to guide your decisions.

Agriculture robots mitigate worker shortages

Across the world, farmers are aging. The shortage of people willing to work on the farm is growing chronic everywhere. In Japan alone, the number of farmers dropped from 2.2 million in 2004 to 1.7 million in 2014.

In addition, most young people don’t consider farming an attractive profession, and immigration policies around the world are making it difficult to obtain migrant workers.

From UAVs to driverless vehicles, a new breed of robotic workers is coming to the farm.

Thanks to improvements in perception and manipulation, agriculture robots can pick grapes, lettuce, or strawberries faster and with as much delicacy as humans.

As migrant workers from Eastern Europe leave or avoid the U.K. in the wake of the so-called Brexit from the EU, robots will pick strawberries.

In the U.S., concerns about President Donald Trump’s plans for a border wall are affecting the seasonal farm workers from Mexico. So one Michigan farm has turned to agricultural robots that can pick apples and that are three times more productive than humans.

Mechanization has been improving farm efficiency for more than a century, but how is your farm using robots? What do agricultural robots and AI mean for the mix of skilled vs. unskilled labor?

Design innovations change the look of farming

In addition to workforce and productivity concerns, how can automation address cost and environmental challenges? Companies around the world are designing next-generation farms with robotics and AI.

The rolling fields of the American landscape are being joined by new growing methods. In Japan, Spread Co. plans to use robots to produce lettuce. Its vertical farm will be fully automated. The only job for humans is to plant seeds. Robots will do everything else, from watering and replanting to harvesting.

Without robots, Spread’s farm can produce 21,000 heads of lettuce a day. With robots, the volume will go up to 51,000 lettuce heads a day.

In the U.K., the Hands-Free Hectare project will use autonomous drones and tractors to grow a form of cereal and to demonstrate that farming can be done without human involvement.

New York-based Bowery Farming is using sensors and AI to monitor the crop health at an indoor, vertical farm growing kale. Technology is allowing the farmer (or entrepreneur) to precisely control the usage of lighting, water, fertilizer, and pesticides.

Imagine recycled shipping containers being used to sustainably grow food in arid parts of Africa or the Middle East. Or vertical farms shortening urban supply chains and reducing the use of potentially harmful chemicals. As in other industries, your innovators and competitors are not just the farmers next door.

Measuring the new productivity

Until recently, farm productivity was measured in the time it took humans to do a task. Going forward, a new measure of productivity could be the robot-to-human ratio, i.e., how many agriculture robots are needed to support humans or do the jobs of humans.

CP Group, China’s third-largest poultry business, is using 18 “robot nannies” to monitor nearly 3 million egg-laying hens. The robots scan the birds and inform their human co-workers if a bird is not looking healthy. CP Group wants to address the problem of food quality and reliability.

AgrIcola Ancali, a Chilean business, will use 64 robotic machines from DeLaval in Sweden to milk up to 4,500 cows. The farm, one of the largest robot-based milk production sites in the world, has already seen 10% increase in milk production.

In Australia, a weed-killing robot is expected to save $1.3 billion a year in costs to farmers. Still, there is a lot of research and refinement yet to be done.

More on Agriculture and Automation:

Growing your business with agriculture robots

As you put robots to work on your farm, achieving exponential productivity or savings will require rethinking multiple variables: scope, business goals and robot-human team structure.

While the opportunities are plentiful, they also come with significant challenges. To make full use of the analytics involved with precision agriculture and autonomous systems for monitoring and managing crops and livestock, you’ll need to review your processes and business model.

Entrepreneurial competitors could come from anywhere, and some agriculture robots could lead to spin-offs for homes and gardens. The U.S. has been somewhat slower to adopt farm automation than parts of Europe or Australia, so farmers and the businesses that support them should watch changing production methods and consumer habits.

Editor’s Note: Author Aseem Prakash will be speaking on “Is Your Business Ready for Robotics and AI?” at RoboBusiness 2017 in September in Santa Clara, Calif.