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Robots: coming soon to a farm near you

A robot development team from the University of Illinois Credit: Claire Benjamin

Ag robots are only 10 or 20 years away, says a Dutch researcher

Robotics have been one of the most visible trends within the agtech sector, from the full-scale, self-driving tractor through to the ‘swarms’ of microrobots that promise to seek out and destroy pests and disease within the crop.

That there are so many companies developing ideas speaks volumes about the expectations for this technology. Yet while commercial ventures might sometimes be accused of over-playing their cards when it comes to capabilities, academics generally tend to have an outlook more rooted in realism. It’s interesting, therefore, to hear Erik Pekkeriet, business development manager at Wageningen University’s Agro Food Robotics programme, explain his thoughts in a recent blog post.

People have become a kind of machine themselves, he acknowledges, in a system where only their productivity matters. “That puts a lot of pressure on the employees,” he says, compounded by a general decline in working conditions, where people no longer have time to stop and chat, instead working by themselves or in noisy rooms with protective equipment. “Social interaction is barely possible and people do the same thing all day long.”

It’s no surprise that, around the world, there’s fewer and fewer employees wanting to take on the work. “It is a worldwide problem. For example, in China and Japan, young people are heading to the city for jobs in service or in ICT. The rural working population has become older.

“The increasing use of robots is considered a solution. Robots enable us to make up for the shortage in the workforce. It is also possible to achieve higher production levels using robots,” he points out.

At Wageningen University, around 60 researchers are working to develop robots that can perform standard, repetitive tasks such as weeding, harvesting and packing. Cameras and sensors, coupled with machine learning, make these robots more precise and more hard-working than humans – plus they can reliably collect constant streams of data, as well as identifying diseases and pests while they work.

“If pests are present, it can be difficult for us to see whether there are more or less of them after three days,” Erik explains. “But a robot can do that precisely, as well as being able to check more often.” Sometimes the robot can locally control or treat the pests or disease, providing opportunities for decreased use of crop protection products.

Other advantages over human workforces include the ability to work under extremes of temperature, and under inclement weather.

Because they can work day and night, robots open up the possibility of making further gains in productivity. Coupled with affordability and longevity, robots will have a low total cost of ownership, making them very attractive to smaller-scale farmers.

“There’s no reason to think that robots won’t be doing all the menial, repetitive work in ten or twenty years from now,” he concludes.

AdrianBell

AdrianBell