Agricultural Robots and AI in Farming; Promises and Concerns

With constant attention given to Industry 4.0, autonomous vehicles and industrial robots, there is one significant area of robotics that is often under-reported—the growing use of autonomous agricultural robots and AI-driven smart systems in agriculture. Although automation has been practiced on the farm for many years, it is not been as widely visible as its cousins on the shop floor. But technology being deployed on farms today is likely to have far reaching consequences.

We are on the edge of an explosion in robotics that will change the face of agriculture around the world, affecting labor markets, society, and the wealth of nations. Moreover, developments today are global in extent, with solutions being created in the undeveloped world as well as in the developed world, stretching across every form of agriculture from massive row crop agribusiness and livestock management, down to precision farming and crop management in market gardens and enclosed spaces.

Agriculture Robots Today

Agriculture is vital to the health of the ever-expanding human population, and to the wide range of interrelated industries that make up the agricultural sector. Processes include everything from planting, seeding, weeding, milking, herding, and gathering, to transportation, processing, logistics, and ultimately to the market—be it the supermarket, or increasing retail online. The UN predicts that world population will rise from 7.3 billion to 9.7 billion in 2050. Robots and intelligent systems will be critical in improving food supplies. Analyst company Tractica estimates shipments of agricultural robots will increase from 32,000 units in 2016 to 594,000 units annually by 2024—when the market is expected to reach $74.1 billion per year.

While automation has been in place for some time and semi-autonomous tractors are increasingly common, farms pose particular problems for robots. Unlike highway travel, which is difficult enough for autonomous vehicles, agricultural robots need to be able to respond to unforeseen events, plus handle and manipulate objects within their environment. AI makes it possible to identify weeds and crops; discern crop health and status; and to be able to take action delicately enough to avoid damage in actions such as picking. At the same time, these robots must navigate irregular surfaces and pathways, find locations on a very fine scale,  and sense specific plant conditions across the terrain.

Agricultural robots using AI technologies are responding to economies in the agricultural sector as well as to rising labor costs and immigration restrictions. The first areas of general impact are in large businesses, since robots have high investment and maintenance costs and there is a lack of skilled operators. Conditions will change as robots become cheaper, more widely available, and capable of performing more diverse tasks. This will require evolution of AI technologies, expansion of collaboration abilities among robots; and man-machine combined operations. The ability of robots to work with humans could be particularly significant due to the wide range of discrimination tasks involved in food safety, quality control, and weed and pest removal. Robots will be guided by human supervisors with skills in agriculture and knowledge of robotic and agricultural systems.

Opportunities and Growth

According to the International Federation of Robotics, agricultural robots are likely to be the fastest growing robotics sector by 2020. Different sectors of agricultural markets will respond differently. Large businesses with row crops are early responders, since they have funds to invest and shrinking margins. For these companies, there are huge benefits in reducing labor costs and instituting more precise farming methods. As picking and weed killing and pest removal systems become more widely available, citrus orchards and difficult-to-pick crops are likely to be next. Robots capable of picking citrus, berries, and other delicate fruit in difficult locations are already starting appear. There are applications in virtually every part of the agricultural sector.

Other uses will appear as robots become more common and less expensive. Robots can make a difference not only in harvesting, but also in precision of water application and fertilizer. In areas where water is contentious, such as California and the Middle East, more efficient watering will make it possible to grow larger crops with greater efficiency and less water, avoiding creation of political and social crises.

In the developing world, opportunities are enormous but individual farmers have fewer resources. For this reason, smaller robots and robot clusters are likely to be more widely used, possibly with emerging Robot-as-a-Service (RaaS) operators providing  labor on a per-usage or rental basis. Robotics will be able to save enormously on chemical costs and water used for irrigation, which will have significant economic impacts, as well as environmental benefits.

Progress and Caution

As use of agricultural robots continues to expand, they will take on increasinly complex tasks, and replace a larger portion of agricultural labor–a critical component of global employment. In many countries, particularly in the developing world, this will create shifts in employment which will empower trends such as rural migration to cities, and reduce overall availability of labor–intensive jobs. More training will be needed by more people; this will impact education, socialization, and finance; particularly in countries with large populations.

There are many implications as AI and agricultural robots are deployed. New ideas are blossoming, startups are on the rise, and we can expect a wide range of consequences as  next generation agricultural robotics and AI continue to emerge.


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