Ag, Robot

Robot. What does that word evoke? Something boxy, metallic, and humanoid from a science fiction movie? An arm-like apparatus used to build cars on an assembly line? Perhaps a little disc that vacuums your carpets? Whatever it is, I’m willing to bet that most people don’t think of “agriculture” when they think of robots.

Yet robots, and automation in general, have been making significant inroads into commercial agriculture at a pace and scale that may surprise even the most jaded techie. Did you know, for example, that several ag equipment manufacturers offer  GPS-guided tractors and combines with the capability of steering down a row of crops to an accuracy of within two inches? Check out the following video for more:

There’s more than just whiz-bang hands-free trickery, though. An automated sensing system developed by venerable ag equipment maker John Deere allows for the near-real-time identification of organic material such as sugar, starch, protein, and fiber, while the crop is being harvested. Based on near-infrared spectroscopy, this system allows livestock farmers to optimize their herd’s performance, and bioenergy feedstock providers to calculate the optimum quantities of biomass material to be harvested, by varying chop lengths by as little as 1 mm (0.04 inches).

We’re not done yet. The two examples we just discussed are applicable to harvesting row crops that operate in a relatively linear manner. What about more complex tasks, such as spacing plants in a nursery or greenhouse? No worries, because Harvest Automation has you covered. See below: 

And these barely scratch the surface. Blue River Technologies is developing a robot expected to physically remove weeds on organic farms (which are limited in their use of pesticides). Vision Robotics is developing one that can prune grape vines. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been working on a robot that can pick cherry tomatoes.

At this point, it may be reasonable to ask: Why robots, and why now? I’d venture that there are multiple factors at play, including trends in both supply and demand. Let’s take a look at some of them:

1. An existing technological analog. It turns out that the technology for self-driving robots shares much in common with that for self-driving cars. Generally speaking, it’s much easier to adapt an existing technology for a new application than to come up with the technology for that application from scratch.

2. An open-source culture. The software architecture on which much of the modern Internet is based relies heavily on the “open source” philosophy, which encourages universal access and unlimited distribution of a particular type of technology (e.g., the Android smartphone operating system). Open source allows product designers and engineers to spend less time reinventing the wheel and more time on building up on the work done by others.

3. The availability of cheap miniature chips and sensors. Even the coolest technologies with world-changing potential are just science projects until they can be commercialized. Advances in the miniaturization, robustness, and accuracy of off-the-shelf chips and sensors, as well as in manufacturing capability (especially by Asian component manufacturers), mean that a variety of components can be cheaply sourced – leading to a product that can be sold at an attractive price.

4. Rising labor costs in industrialized countries. Japan and the European Union countries are no stranger to high labor costs, and so pursuing automation may be a cost-effective route for farmers in these countries. In the United States, too, an increased awareness of immigrant labor has led to an interest in ag robots.

5. The incentive for emerging economies to move up the value chain. According to this article, China is starting to install an ever-increasing number of robots for various applications – which seems incredulous at first. After all, isn’t the country known for its inexpensive labor? As it turns out, wages are rising, as a result of which China is incentivized to move up the value chain to provide its workers with higher-wage opportunities (or else see their jobs be moved to even lower-wage countries and be left with a big skills gap). The use of robots to perform routine tasks is a step in this direction.

In summary, the intersection of a number of complex global factors is leading to the continued revolution in the “robotization” of agriculture that is as significant as it is low-profile. What impact will this have on conventional row crops? On horticultural crops? On industrial crops grown on unproductive land? Only time will tell.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go. My robot chef just sent me a text saying that dinner’s ready.

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