Robots in Agriculture: Present and Future

This is a guest post by Jack Simmer (a writer for DO Supply)

Robots are gradually changing every industry and agriculture isn’t an exception. The use of robotics in this field isn’t widespread yet. However, it’s expected to grow significantly by 2020-2028.

Why There Aren’t Many Robots in Agriculture Now (But Will Be More in the Future)

The most important reason that prevents the use of robots in agriculture today is the fact that the technology hasn’t been created yet. The majority of automation solutions are either in a testing or development stages and have far to go before they can be commercialized.

This technology progresses a bit slowly because of the high costs and complexities involved. At the moment, the level of visual tech isn’t high enough to create an efficient robot for harvesting or weeding. The trick is that the vision of the robot must be taught to not only identify different objects but to analyze them and determine which should be removed.

There are a few machines capable of doing this, such as a tomato-harvester robot from Panasonic and cucumber-harvester currently developed by scientists from Germany. However, neither is commercially available yet.

The other issue that makes the development of agricultural robots so difficult is the fact that they must be taught how to perform their tasks with extreme gentleness and accuracy. While surgical robotics have proven that accuracy isn’t an issue for a machine, automating a fresh fruit-harvesting robot proves to be a much greater challenge. One can certainly make a well-calibrated teleoperated robot to pick even as soft a fruit as grapes. However, yet again, the technology isn’t at the level when it can be mass-produced and used by agricultural businesses.

There’s also a debate going on whether one should create one big multifunctional robot or multiple small robots that will fulfill various tasks. The second solution seems like a more efficient option at the moment. The main concerns are the weight of the device and its maneuverability. Lighter and smaller robots have a lower risk of damaging the crops and soil.

Money is also a challenge for the implementation of robots in agriculture. The tech available now is too expensive to make these solutions viable for these businesses. However, as this field develops rather fast, we can expect to see commercially available agricultural robots within 1-2 years. After all, some types of them exist and are used even today.

Types of Robots in Agriculture

Robots can perform a variety of tasks and make the business of growing crops much less taxing for humans. The main areas for the implementation of robotics in agriculture are harvesting, weeding, mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying, sorting, and packing.

Some types of robotics that are already used include drones (monitoring and spraying) and automated tractors. Note that the tractors of today still require a lot of human input into the controls. However, these machines get more advanced and are expected to become fully autonomous by the late 2020s.

At the moment, drones are the leader of robots in agriculture. They are extremely cost-efficient and are widely used by small farms. The reason for this is undoubtedly the fact that drone technology has become extremely commoditized and therefore affordable.

Harvesters are also getting out there as these machines are in the highest demand due to the inefficiency of picking fresh fruit by hand. The harvesting of seeds is nearly 100% motorized these days. However, only a few strawberry-picking machines are available commercially and even those require the redesign of strawberry farms to function efficiently.

In the coming years, we can expect to see much more work invested into the creation of robot-harvesters that will completely eliminate the need for back-breaking labor inherent to this low-paying and extremely difficult task.

The demand for robots in agriculture grows by the day and scientists respond to it by creating more and more advanced robotic solutions.