Modern agriculture is in the midst of a technological revolution. While almost every other major industry has been quick to introduce robotics into almost every aspect of their operations, the growth of robotics in agriculture has stagnated by comparison.
Influenced by the increasing profitability of indoor farming and the ever-increasing costs and difficulty of finding labor, robotic technology is quickly revolutionizing agriculture. Initially, large operations were happy to integrate technology that made the jobs of their workers easier. Innovations such as GPS-guided harvesters, robotic-assisted milking machines, and fruit and vegetable wash plants definitely improved efficiency, but still required labor to operate them.
There are very tangible benefits of robotics on modern agriculture for producers and consumers alike. Some of the most significant benefits are:
- Decreased cost of production;
- Information sharing between producers and consumers;
- Improved supply chain;
- Increased labor efficiency and decreased cost;
- Reduced food wastage and increased yields;
- Increased financial sustainability.
Until recently, technological solutions were fragmented, complex and expensive. Reduced implementation costs and a changing consumer market has moved many applications from the future to the present. Below we will look at five ways in which agriculture is quickly being redefined by robotic technology.
Robotics are helping agriculture to go vertical with the concept of indoor and urban farming. Seeking to maximize space in urban areas, technology has allowed greenhouses to operate 24 hours a day and increase yields per square foot by over 10 times that of traditional farming.
This has been achieved in part by optimizing the light spectrum for photosynthesis using LEDs, precise nutrient application, and automated harvesting. While urban farming reduces the environmental effects of transporting food, at the moment these types of operations utilize vast amounts of power, and have only been profitable for high-value crops. Increasing the efficiency of robots and the continued demand of consumers for local food will likely propel the popularity of these applications.
From a producer standpoint, the livestock industry is benefitting from the use of robotics perhaps even more so than cultivating operations.
I recently met a dairy farmer on vacation who was monitoring the health, feeding and milking of his herd from his smartphone. There were people nearby who could assist in an emergency, but as he told me this was the first time he and his wife had been on holiday in decades, and by and large the farm was operating autonomously.
This was achieved by a network or robots that were completing tasks ranging from analyzing milk data in real time and adjusting feeding rations, to cleaning manure as it accumulated. Data collected from these machines was also invaluable in identifying inefficiencies in the operation. These devices still require monitoring, but as this particular farmer enjoyed a drink by the beach, I think he would agree that it transformed his operation.
Drones in agriculture
Drone technology is not limited to agriculture, of course – but it is quickly becoming one of the most useful for plant cultivating operations. Drones equipped with thermal and infrared imaging technologies are increasingly operating and relaying data autonomously. Some of the most relevant applications of autonomous drones and the data they provide are:
- Crop monitoring
- Soil assessment
- Plant emergence and population
- Crop protection
- Crop insurance reporting in real time
- Irrigation and drainage planning
- Harvest planning
Some of the robotic technology being used in agriculture has roots in other industries. Autonomous lawn mowers, for example, have long been the fantasy of homeowners as they cut the grass on their front yard on a hot day.
Technology that was first seen in automatic vacuum cleaners working in the home has since moved outdoors. Automatic lawnmowers use sensors and GPS-guided precision to accurately and safely accomplish tasks that has long required physical labor or a machine operator. A great comparison of robotic lawn mowers can be found here.
The technology used in the lawn mowers showcased above is making its way to an industrial scale. As harvesters, planters and fertilizer/pesticide applicator robots become smaller, they are opening up the possibility of small yet efficient farming operations once again becoming the norm. This is poised to transform an industry that has increasingly become dominated by large-scale operations.
Blockchain technology pioneered by cryptocurrency is being utilized in agriculture operations to enhance traceability from farm to fork. This traceability is not only preferred by consumers, but increasingly being demanded in the wake of health-related incidents.
Blockchain works by mapping data and providing it to users along the value chain simply by scanning a barcode. These barcodes are applied and linked throughout the value chain automatically by grading and sorting robotics.
Data on seeds, farm location, harvest, storage, supply chain and end users provide detailed descriptions of the product through its life cycle. This information is not only providing the consumer with transparency and a farm-to-fork timeline, but also reduces risks for producers and provides a cost-effective supply chain analysis to optimize profits.
No signs of slowing
While initially slow to the market, robotics in agriculture is set to embark on a transformational change at a rapid pace. Investment in robotic companies focused on agriculture is surging, and with a world population set to reach 10 billion by 2050, there is no sign of this slowing. The future of the world depends on our ability to feed more people with less resources, and robotic automation is the key to success.
About the author: Matt Jonas has been an organic gardener and a florist for 20 years. He also specializes in commercial agricultural equipment and robotics. Follow him here.