The Growth of Robotics in Agriculture

Earlier this week, a story came out of the United Kingdom, of the first farm to successfully produce a crop without a human ever stepping onto a field.  The Hands-Free Hectare project, harvested 4 ½ tons of barley with robots doing everything from planting, pesticide and fertilizer application, and harvesting.  Farmers managed the crop through control panels and computers that controlled customized tractors and drones. 

In central California near Silicon Valley, farmers are reducing their need for field labor by using robots to harvest lettuce.  The robot is complete with a water knife that will cut and place the produce in a bin as it moves along a field.  Already 10% of the lettuce crop in the United States is harvested by robot. 

Welcome to the new world of agriculture.  Using all forms of robotics, drones, and computers, may usher in the next wave of agriculture that may make as big a difference than the last wave with the introduction in the 1970s of the 4-wheel drive tractor.

One of the big drivers is the increasing cost of labor.  Technology has improved in its efficiency and is coming down in price when compared to the cost of labor.  The producer does not have to worry if workers will show up for the day, or if there is adequate daylight to finish the daily tasks.  Things like the rising cost of healthcare and other benefits for workers are replaced with repair and maintenance costs on the technology.  Improvements in the operating systems are often down with open architecture that allows for various producers to adjust and improve features on the robots. 

But other expenses for the farmer will also drop with this new technology.  Robot tractors combined with drones are shown to reduce pesticide use by 75% while treating 90% of the weeds in a field.  This alone would represent a huge decrease in application costs which will help the profitability of the producer.

Robotics are also being used with farm animals.  Drones are used in some large ranches to monitor cattle or sheep.  A company in the Netherlands called Lely, has created and installed over 20,000 milking robots around the world.  The Lely Astronaut A4 box allows cows to be milked when they want to, compared to when the farmer has time.  The robot attaches teat cups to incoming cows and then takes them off when the milking is done.  The system also allows for better pasture management as cows can be rotated every 8-12 hours to a different pasture to prevent overgrazing.  The cows simply just move to the dairy barn when milking time is near and then move out to the pasture when complete.  Lely also makes autonomous robots to feed cows and clean the barn.

A dairy I visited in Colorado uses each milking to monitor production and health of each cow.  It is like each cow seeing a vet twice a day!  RFID chips in the cow’s ear tag will open a gate to a different corral that leads to the vet if illness is detected.   Each time a cow was milked the protein and butterfat content is measured. 

Safety is also an issue with robots having the ability to detect hazards of other robots, animals, or people in their path.  Drones are equipped with sensors that can help avoid hitting different objects and creating damage to themselves and to other property. 

So, the new wave of robots and drones appear to lower costs of labor, seed, fertilizer, and pesticides.  They also will improve the output of the producer.  What this could mean is a large shift in the type of skills needed to run a farm successfully and a new generation of people who will be inclined to look at a career in this field.  More technology skills are demanded to keep up with the ever-improving ag infrastructure.  The day may come where the next strategic hires for a farm are a computer programmer and drone flyer rather than someone to physically hop into a combine cab.  At the same time, these changes may also allow farmers to begin to have more free time.