Robots can help farmers improve crop yields and ease labour shortages but their adoption has been dramatically low.
Robots have been a familiar sight on factory floors for decades, but now they’re headed for greener pastures. Agricultural drones, self-driving tractors and seed-planting robots could help prevent labour shortages and an impending global food crisis.
The promise of producing more crops with less effort and less impact on the environment is leading to bullish predictions. Industry pundits expect the global agricultural robotics market to surpass US$81 billion by 2028.
Transitioning to smart farming technology requires high initial investment, which presents an acute challenge for smaller farms hardest hit by labour shortages.
US farm equipment company John Deere recently revealed its first fully autonomous tractor. But with prices starting at US$150,000 for an entry-level model, this is out of reach for most small to medium-sized family enterprises.
High costs are largely due to the complexity of tasks involved. Robots required to navigate autonomously in outdoor environments, such as farms, need powerful sensing technologies that retrieve information from satellites.
Potential profitability is not always clear — farm size, crop choice, traditional labour costs and variable environmental conditions all must be assessed — preventing farmers from taking a gamble if initial costs are high.
In response, robotics companies are now trialling subscription-based services. Farmers can rent the robot for a designated time period or for specific tasks. In this way, they’re able to assess site-specific performance without committing to high upfront costs. It generally takes about two years for robots to properly integrate to a specific farm setting.
This lengthy time frame, along with ongoing maintenance, hardware and software upgrade costs, makes it difficult for farmers to assess economic and environmental benefits. It also makes it hard for robotics companies to grow and achieve financial stability.
In most countries, there’s also a lack of legal frameworks to regulate data handling and interactions between robots, humans and the environment. This increases risks and is hindering adoption of new technologies at scale.
“Until recently, agriculture has always been about doing more, with more — more horsepower, more inputs, more acres — but the new digital era is changing all of that. In the last decade, it has been about doing more with less, and providing farmers with tools to make informed decisions,” says Jahmy Hindman, chief technology officer at John Deere.
Yet it remains to be seen whether enough farmers will get on board to increase market size and lower costs.
For the time-being, it’s agricultural drones that are proving most successful. The emergence of cheap multispectral cameras has helped reduce costs to as low as US$1,500, making drones an attractive investment for many farmers. And with authorities such as the US Federal Aviation Administration laying the groundwork for regulations on drone use and operation, adoption is rapidly increasing on farms around the world.
Government support, in the form of tax reductions or subsidy schemes, can help emerging companies innovate and test new business models. Australia’s Accelerating Commercialisation grants and the European Union’s vineyard automation project, GRAPE, offer good examples for others to follow. More investment from the private sector is also needed. The development of smart-farming technologies requires millions of dollars to research and scale. This is a problem for investors seeking immediate payback via proven technologies and widespread applications.
Daniel Casagrande is assistant professor in the Institute of Engineering Sciences at Universidad de O’Higgins, Chile.
This article is part of a Special Report coinciding with Covering Climate Now’s joint coverage week on Food & Water.