It is harvest time and John Smith needs all the additional help he can get at his sprawling wheat farm in Texas. Will he choose to hire scores of farm hands or purchase a single robot with 24 arms? At a time when labor is hard to come by, John chooses the machine.
Today, defence and agriculture already account for a majority of the service robots deployed for professional use. The International Federation of Robotics estimates that as many as 25,000 agricultural robots will have been sold by 2015—matching the number used for military purposes.
At a time when the world’s population is on the increase and the threat of food scarcity looms large, it becomes imperative to increase the productivity of land. Agricultural robotics has a crucial role to play in this endeavor.
This technology has already been introduced in several labor intensive, repetitive agricultural activities. Strawberry farms in California and dairy farms in England have already replaced farms hands with agricultural robots and are reaping the benefits of this technology. In addition, they have been successfully used for tasks that require high precision. For instance, take ‘intelligent’ sprayers that detect weeds and then spray chemicals targeting these areas. This could drastically reduce the quantity of chemicals used in fields—improving the quality of agricultural produce, bringing in cost efficiency, and also offering a more responsible, environment friendly solution.
But the biggest impact of robotics can be seen in the area of agricultural predictive analytics. Researchers have already initiated the use of drones to survey farm land, promising to transform agricultural practice. Using this technology, farmers can continuously monitor their fields to improve crop yield and reduce wastage of agricultural water and chemicals. But more significantly, this data could be used to predict dramatic changes in the weather, manage stock, and determine the most suitable time for farmers to harvest their crop.
Despite these obvious benefits, this technology is not without its challenges, and there remain tasks that may always require human intervention. For instance, take tasks such as lambing and fresh fruit harvesting. Especially in these areas, robots may not always accurately distinguish between color and feel, which is essential for success.
Clearly, farmers will need a more holistic approach to agricultural robotics—relying on either machines or human assistance, based on the task at hand. But with robot farmers becoming increasingly nimble and intuitive, it is expected that within the next 20 years, all farms will utilize some form of this technology.