The automation of Agriculture: Part II Farming with robots

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

Were he alive today, Cyrus McCormick would likely be impressed. The man credited with inventing the mechanical reaper in 1834 would recognize an industry on the cusp of a new age.

Over the last 30 years, information and communication technologies like sensors, GPS, WIFI, analytic software and the Internet have laid a foundation for an era of highly- automated, data-driven, precision agriculture.

From automated steering to autonomous tractors  

The focus of automation in farming has shifted from assisting humans to replacing them. The adoption of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and automated steering systems in tractors, for example, contributed to reduced operator fatigue. The longer term focus, however, is on freeing the operator from the cab. One leading-edge system allows a combine operator to call a driverless, tractor-drawn grain cart to move in synch alongside the combine for non-stop unloading. And, some of the major manufacturers have developed semi-autonomous tractor systems which link manned tractors with driverless tractors and implements.  

Farming at the micro level

Various types of robots or “agbots” are also being developed and marketed. Some are useful in collecting data like rainfall, soil moisture, temperature and humidity data. Other agbots can turn attached devices on and off and send live photos on-line. Another category of robots is being developed to perform field operations like seeding, weeding, fertilizing, and spraying. An   important feature of this group of robots is their ability to tend to an individual plant, applying pesticide and fertilizer, for example, in minute quantities. This has multiple potential benefits including reductions in fertilizer run-off and pesticide drift and lower input costs for farmers.

Drones – farmers’ eyes in the sky

Unmanned aerial vehicles or drones are the latest entrants in the drive to roboticise North American agriculture. Some leading edge farmers are using drones equipped with high resolution cameras to map fields and monitor crops for diseases and nutrient deficiencies. Their lower cost and convenience and improved image resolution makes them an attractive alternative to manned aircraft.   

The economic and social environment in which the farming sector operates is changing. Finding ways to lower operating costs and boost productivity while enhancing environmental performance is increasingly important. Expect growing demand for the best of the innovations in automated farming.

Next post: Some thoughts as to what it all means.

The automation of agriculture: Part 1

Calvin Mulligan