A Bright Future For RoboAgriculture

Robotics Specialty Crops
There are a number of robotics providers that are demonstrating autonomous driving, delicate handling, high-speed motion, and independent data collection in agriculture.

Agriculture has both led and trailed in the use of technology over the past 50 years. The tractors on today’s farm are GPS-enabled with assisted steering and feature significantly more sophisticated monitoring than available in most automobiles. Over the last century, farmers have been able to do more than four times the acreage and grow nearly 10 times the amount of food per acre. To say farmers and the businesses who serve them have not engaged with technology would be less than accurate.

Yet around the world, there is an obvious gap between modern ag and optimal use of technology. Leadership of farms in South Korea, Japan, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. averages late 50s to late 60s in age. The farm population shrinks every year in both first- and second-world nations, meaning there are fewer skilled professionals left to feed and milk our cattle, harvest our berries and apples, and bring our foods to market.

Conversely, demands for higher quality food have increased as consumer income and health awareness has risen. Agriculture has fallen in the ranks of the national GDP but remains the connecting fabric to communities in every state in the country. Feeding more with fewer resources — this is where the farming community is.

In December the San Diego Convention Center hosted RoboUniverse Agriculture for the second year. The agriculture community and the tech world combined to establish a vision and a path forward toward success. There were a number of robotics providers there demonstrating autonomous driving, delicate handling, high-speed motion, and independent data collection. As I considered the conference content, I found five key takeaways that I intend to implement in my agriculture advising business going forward.

1. Vision Breeds Innovation

Dr. Martin Buehler, R&D “Imagineer” with Walt Disney Imagineering, gave the opening keynote and provided a fantastic perspective on the power of vision. He shared archive videos of Walt Disney discussing robotics and animatronics long before they were possible or common. The commitment to an outcome was the first step in identifying where they had to be. The technology was developed, found, and catered to their needs following that vision set out by the company’s founder and namesake in those early years.

2. The Demand Is Real

Farmers are begging for tools, but there is a monumental hurdle: Much of the farm industry is isolated from costs to the consumer. From the farmer’s perspective the prices of wheat and corn are near their 1970s levels, while breakfast cereal is now significantly higher in cost than it was then.

The stagnant farmgate value for many crops had minimized the value proposition for robotics companies for years, but now the impact is being felt by consumers. The value of robotics in, say, the lettuce market is fractional compared to their value in fast-food restaurants, because crops like lettuce have unique needs that limit the opportunity for single solutions to take to market. But farmers will buy robotics if they can get the job done.

3. Robots Deliver Data

Most of the jobs for which agriculture could effectively use robots can be simple, and could save time for remaining farmworkers to do more. But there is very likely a vein of untapped value in the data the robots could collect in the course of doing their jobs. Dr. Kathleen Graves of IBM’s Weather Channel pointed to the capacity for simple robotic tools to capture valuable data streams.

I can see where machines that automatically push hay up for cattle can collect and track data about the animals’ temperature, allowing for proactive treatment with fewer antibiotics for minor illnesses. Robots that carry boxes in orchards can simultaneously evaluate tree health and do yield estimation to measure the impacts of other big data points that are being collected (weather, moisture, nutrients, and others). This is incredibly valuable information.

4. Technology Will Transfer

Robotics is a robust industry. RoboUniverse was filled with examples of technologies needed to do much of the work that was almost impossible just a few years ago. Some examples exist in ag, but others are almost certainly transferrable. Here are a few examples:

  • Path planning for massive mining trucks by ASI.
  • Hospital bots built by VECNA that work around people and in elevators.
  • Vision systems that can find berries in leaves from companies like Agrobot and Harvest CROO Robotics.
  • Complex motion and movement by companies like CROO again and alsoSoft Robotics.
  • Technology to touch things softly and adeptly by companies like Soft Robotics and Syntouch.

The technical foundation to our robotic needs are here, and the costs are economically reasonable. While new farm robots are going to be more complicated than we would like, the problem of labor shortage has soared for American farmers, and fruit is literally rotting in the field. Farmers need to hire more technical staff who are capable of learning and implementing new tools as fast as they can be developed to stay in business. Watch for the next director of robotics on your neighbors’ farms.

5. Integrators Are Needed

Ironically, the thing that’s really missing with robotics is people who can put it all together.

There are not as many individuals in the coming generation in rural areas who know the inner workings of the farm and consequently can understand where robots can bring value in the operation. And the generation that does know farms is not as connected with robotics.

We need the attention of those who can take the time and want to advance the industry with the technology. We need companies that will hire and dedicate full-time employees to capture and quantify the simple work that takes more time than skill — things like spraying, mowing, herd inspection, checking fences, and even pulling weeds and picking up rocks. The farms of today have more work and need many more people to do the skilled jobs. While it is easily believable that we will be eating robotically harvested tomatoes by 2018, it is critical we do the things that keep the farms alive throughout 2017.

We will see advancement in robotics this year. Companies are springing up everywhere. The technology of data and robotics is gaining prime-time attention and will be highlighted everywhere this year at conferences like Forbes magazine’s AgTech Summit in Salinas, CA, and United’s FrechTEC Expo in Chicago.

Everyone loves to eat, and technology is going to enable us to continue to grow the food that everyone loves. Farmers know they can feed good food to everyone on the planet. We could just use a little help to carry the load.

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