The Automation of Agriculture: Observations and conclusions Part III

The following is Part III in a three-part series on the subject of automation in agriculture, courtesy of Calvin Mulligan, FCC’s resident futurist. Part 1 and Part II highlighted the use of robotics in dairy, beef, horticulture and viniculture production.

Automation is becoming an increasingly important feature of agricultural production. In dairying, livestock production and horticulture, smart machines can do more of the physical and mental work. And as the reach of automation grows, so do the implications for owners, managers and employees. 

Robotics are found at all levels of the agrifood value chain from production to retail. Pioneering restaurateurs in Asia are using robots to welcome guests, prepare dishes, and deliver orders to customers. A U.S. developed hamburger machine is capable of producing 360 hamburgers an hour. MacDonald’s is evaluating the potential of automated cashiers.

Robot IQ rising

Today’s robots have higher IQs than their industrial predecessors, able to discern where to cut the meat from the bone, which strawberry is ripe and which fruit should be rejected. They’re getting smarter. Research will eventually allow robots a better sense of touch and equip them to work together in teams. Further refinements will allow robots to learn on the job and adapt to unexpected changes in their work environments.

Toward autonomous systems and enterprises

Labour shortages and the productivity imperative are nudging the ag industry toward automation wherever feasible. Typically, automation in a particular sector begins with the more laborious jobs and progresses to the more complex jobs and automation of entire production systems. This pattern is apparent in the automation of dairying which, over time has progressed from machine milking to fully automated or robotic milking systems.

The ag automation and adoption challenge

Overcoming the technical difficulties of working with delicate fruits and vegetables, working in unpredictable terrain and weather conditions will be hurdles for developers bringing automation to market. The pace of the market adoption of automation in agriculture is unpredictable, as it’s based on the cost of the equipment, competitive pressures, the management culture of the business and labour supply.      

Automation is however a central feature of the emerging vision of data-driven, precision agriculture. This vision requires a re-think of the management of the ag enterprise. Today’s manager can exercise control over inputs and resource use at an unprecedented level of granularity. This ability opens the way to a more cost-effective, productive and environmentally-sustainable agriculture. And, it makes the central focus of 21st century management clear -- leveraging the intelligence of the hybrid machine-human workforce.   

Calvin Mulligan