Good news everybody. Automated agriculture is on the up. It may be not a moment too soon.
That’s because we have a growing problem, one which is both transformational and yet unavoidable. Agriculture is under threat and food security is a growing concern. Aspiration, an aging population and more mouths to feed are some of the main causes for worry. Here in the UK the issue is deepened by the weak pound and the migrant shortfall caused by Brexit. Fortunately automated agriculture is moving forward at a breakneck pace with Cambridge analysts IDTechEx tipping it to become a $12bn industry by 2027.
Automated agriculture relates to any piece of equipment designed to remove manual intervention in the farming industry. Examples include harvesting robots, driverless tractors and sprayers, and more advanced technology such as sprayer drones. Artificial intelligence (AI) also plays a part, with agricultural robots using complex algorithms to ‘seek and destroy’ weeds, manage ecosystems or calculate the expected yield.
In some instances the technology isn’t that far advanced. Take the example of Taylors Farms in the Salinas Valley, USA. It has made conscious efforts to manage the drop in agricultural workers. In its fields, robots wielding water knives cut lettuce heads and collect them up afterwards. Workers have the luxury of riding onboard, separating the good produce from the bad; a far cry from the backbreaking work of cutting the lettuce by hand.
Advances in data technology solutions mean that new ways of working are possible. Take the startup AgriData which is developing a way for machines to manage field productivity. This form of precision agriculture pinpoints produce then works out the plants’ yield. Farmers benefit from the knowledge of when to harvest their crops, helping to reduce wastage and maximize uptime. Computationally, humans are incapable of this level of analysis, which gives AI a competitive advantage.
An example of this type of technology can be found at Harper Adams University in Shropshire. It’s developing an autonomous tractor which is capable of producing a detailed spatial map of a field, making it possible to plant, tend and harvest without human intervention.
When people talk about farming, it often conjures up images of lumbering, powerful machines. But that might not be the case for future food production. The next wave of agricultural robots will have very different characteristics, and are likely to be small, slow, light and autonomous. It’s these kind of vehicles which are most likely to become commonplace on farms. It’s also possible that there will be lots, each with their own function.
Take Ibex Automation for example, which has been developing extreme mobility autonomous weed sprayers. The design is made for less favorable farmland, which in the future will be needed to be worked to achieve high yields.
Dr. Charles Fox, director at Ibex Automation, said: “There are jobs on farms that don’t create value at or above the minimum wage, such as spraying weeds on hill farms. The farmers are legally not allowed to pay anyone below this rate, so those jobs just don’t get done at all. We see thousands of acres of land covered in weeds which reduce the amount of food we can grow and increases the price of food for everyone.”
It is true, by automating sub-minimum wage jobs, we will be able to feed more people at a lower cost. Like any change in industry, some people will lose their jobs, but Dr. Fox suggests this isn’t a bad thing.
“It will create more interesting work for local people, who will move up the value chain into roles like managing fleets of robots and getting them to start farming currently new areas of previously uneconomic land” added Dr. Fox. “Other new jobs will work with the data coming off these robots, looking for new ways to manage ecosystems and optimise production, using deep human knowledge and skills. We will also become more sustainable as precision robots only use fertilisers and pesticides where they are absolutely necessary, such as placing single spots of chemical onto plant leaves or roots instead of blanket spraying whole fields with them.”
The idea is one which is both admirable and cost effective. In essence, the Ibex agricultural robots use AI to hunt for weeds, then dose a small amount of pesticide. This minimalist approach to weed management removes the stigma of pesticide use, increases productivity and profit margin. Having spent his graduate years walking across a six acre field zapping nettles and thistles with a fairly toxic chemical backpack, for sub-minimum wage (working for his family), Dr. Charles Fox is certainly a man who can see the merit in this approach.
It’s likely that before we realize the full potential of automated agriculture businesses will go for the high value crops like tree nuts, vineyards, and fresh produce. Among the first commercialized farming robots for tending these types of crops will be agricultural drones.
Drones are ideal for precision agriculture, using big data and aerial imagery to optimize efficiency. They are also already a developed technology, which means drones will lead the way as other technologies develop. It is expected that agricultural drones will capture 80% of the UAV market. They will provide vital support in the analysis of plant health and needs to ensure the highest yield. This allows the drone to provide the right amount of care, be that providing additional nutrients, pesticides or water.
As the cost of technology for farm management falls, we can expect to see mass adoption and the transformation of agriculture as we know it.
Judging by the situation in the UK farming industry, that day can’t come soon enough.