The automation of Agriculture: Part 1

The following is courtesy of Calvin Mulligan, FCC’s resident futurist. In this first entry of a three part series, Calvin looks at the use of robotics in agriculture.

Merriam Webster defines a robot as a machine that can do the work of a person and that works automatically or is controlled by a computer. For an industry that’s long been plagued by shortages of qualified labour, the advent of robotic assistants is a welcome development. We can expect to see more robots taking their place in agricultural enterprises. A 2014 study by Wintergreen Research finds that worldwide markets for agriculture and agrifood robots are poised for significant growth. It projects global sales at more than $16 billion by 2020.

Automation is a growing trend across several sectors of the agriculture and agrifood industry. Automated milking systems have been part of the dairy picture in Europe and North America since the nineties. By 2012, there were about 273 farms (3%) in Canada using robotic systems. As the numbers suggest, automation has a ways to go. Those producers able to navigate the bumps in the debugging-adaptation phase typically cite reduced dependence on hired labour, increased milk production and improved lifestyle as benefits. Over time, the functionality of these dairy barn systems has also grown with applications like automated barn floor cleaners, feeders and bunk pushers.

The prospects for significant application of robotics in other sectors of agriculture such as beef are also growing. In 2013, the Australian Centre for Field Robotics tested the ability of a robot called “Rover” to move cattle from a field to a barn. The researchers intend to develop other applications for Rover including: herd surveillance, surveying, soil sampling, security, grazing management, and monitoring calving. It’s expected that one day, beef producers, like the operators of automated dairies, will be able to remotely monitor the behaviour and health of individual animals in their herds, potentially enabling new management productivity.

Robotics is also reaching the horticulture sector. In 2013, the Japanese developed a robot which uses digital cameras to calculate the ripeness of a strawberry before snipping it from the vine.  Researchers in the Netherlands have developed a robot equipped with cameras, clippers and a robotic arm, designed to harvest greenhouse peppers. And in France, a robot called “Wall-Ye V.I.N.” is being used in the viniculture sector to prune grape plant vines, up to 600 per day. In time, it will take on grape picking. “Wall-Ye” will sell for about $32,000. Meanwhile in Boston, Harvest Automation is putting “Harvey” robots to work distributing and collecting container-grown plants in greenhouses and nurseries.

The pattern is one of increasing innovation and adoption of robotics across the agriculture industry. The machine-human division of labour is changing and the management implications are significant.

In subsequent posts, I’ll look at the use of drones in field crop production and peer further up the value chain.

The automation of Agriculture Part II: Farming with robots

Calvin Mulligan is a Senior Intelligence Strategist serving in the role of resident futurist at FCC.