The global agriculture industry faces massive challenges in the next few years. With the world’s population expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050, food production must increase by 70% to feed the additional 2.3 billlion people, said Enric Pedros, a panelist at RoboBusiness Europe 2015 in Milan, Italy.
In Europe, a relatively small portion of the Earth’s surface is used by farming — less than the 12% global average — and soil quality is declining, said Pedros, cluster manager at FEMAC, the Catalan Cluster of Agricultural Machinery. However, he said, approaches such as FEMAC promise to help regional agriculture overcome technical challenges, in part through precision farming.
Founded in the late 1990s, FEMAC grew out of efforts to internationalize industrial automation suppliers in Girona, explained Pedros. By the early 2000s, the effort had shifted to fostering innovation and cooperation around information and communications technology (ICT). Now, FEMAC is developing a new strategy and seeking partners beyond tools makers, including seed and pesticide producers.
Smart and sustainable farming
Solutions must include electronics, GPS, GIS, and photonics, said Pedros. Sustainable farming will require smart decision systems. “In the future, farmers should be able to control any system from their smartphones,” he said.
In the meantime, FEMAC has combined a low-cost camera with a robotic arm for automatic fruit harvesting. The camera provides guidance and stereovision, allowing for affordable pickup, but as with other robotics applications in Europe, there’s still a gap between research institutions and potential end users.
“Farmers are not yet interested in investing; there is mostly academic interest,” said Pedros.
Another example of automation’s potential is a fruit sorting machine that sorts hand-picked fruits in the field during harvesting, saving time spent in warehouses and allowing fresh fruit to go from the field to the store, said Pedros.
Pedros cited Plant Tape as another obvious opportunity for farmers to benefit from automation. The strips of peat/vermiculite include a growing medium and seed pouches. They also make it easy to plant and harvest crops such as lettuce, replacing eight human workers who used to plant 900 seeds per tray.
Factors for agricultural automation
Even with high unemployment, Spain faces a labor crisis, said Pedros. It has been hard to find people willing to work in the fields, and Israel has even imported labor from Malaysia rather than rely on its neighbors, he said.
The unreliable, seasonal nature of farming doesn’t help with finding workers, and some countries such as the U.K. and Germany have relatively high minimum wages.
Five Technical Challenges for Agribotics
According to FEMAC’s Endric Pedros, robotic farming must address the following five challenges:
- Farms must preserve environmental sustainability.
- Machines must efficiently dose seeds, water, and pesticides.
- Machines must reduce energy consumption.
- The water cycle needs to be better managed.
- The roboticization of production relies on decreasing costs, increasing yields with precision and speed.
Resource shortages such as for water and fertilizer are encouraging the use of precision farming to deliver smaller, more managed doses to plants, said Pedros. The tendency toward larger farms is also encouraging the use of automation, he said.
Obstacles to precision farming
The biggest challenge is economic, said Pedros. “What do farmers want?” he said, adding that they need to be educated how robots can save them time and money.
Technical challenges include improving navigation, which is relatively simple but requires developing machine vision and the ability to interpret visual data. Information about seeds, soil, and plants also needs to be delivered to farmers in a way they can appreciate and use, Pedros said.
“In 18 years, it’s still hard to imagine a fully 100% robot farm,” Pedros said, but FEMAC is still working toward that goal.