What are agriculture robots?
Agriculture robots perform crop maintenance tasks such as harvesting, applying pesticides, weeding, and other tasks. Agriculture robots are a type of field robot, however, they also add value indoors by operating in greenhouses. Some agriculture robots work independently, while others work collaboratively with humans in the field.
Farming innovations may not make it to the top of the news feed, but the agriculture sector is ripe for robotic innovation. Between thin margins, labor shortages, a changing climate, and the development of pest- and drought-resistant crops, farming has all the hallmarks of an industry perfect for robotics.
Trends affecting agriculture robots
Feeding the world is no easy feat; farmers need all the help they can get. Climate change is making farming less predictable during a time when labor challenges beset the industry. This problematic situation is further compounded by surging global demand for food with the population growing from 7.7 billion to 9.7 billion by 2050.
In 2021, market forecaster Report Ocean estimated the global agriculture robot market was USD$4.8 billion, with an expected rise at a compound annual growth rate of 36% to reach USD$101.2 billion by 2030. To maintain output and scale their operations, farmers and agricultural experts are turning to robots to help solve some of the biggest challenges in feeding the planet.
Types of agriculture robots
Technology is nothing new to the industry. For millennia farmers sought out solutions that would enable them to increase productivity and reduce the number of farm hands needed per acre. From horse-drawn plows to more modern innovations such as planters, bailers, threshers, and harvesters, it’s always been about performing critical tasks at scale.
Some agriculture robots are autonomous tractors, pulling conventional machinery, while others marry robotics with existing machinery. Various mechanical machines to harvest at scale already exist, the challenge is making those machines autonomous.
Frank W. Andrew made the first attempt at building a wireless tractor in 1940. Eight-one years later John Deere, a long-time provider of farming machinery, acquired autonomous tractor startup Bear Flag Robotics, signifying the dawn of a new era of autonomous tractors. Piggybacking off innovations in self-driving vehicles, many farmers now begin their transition into autonomous farming with this new type of tractor.
Other tasks haven't adapted to mechanical machinery as easily. Picking more delicate crops like grapes and strawberries, or checking the soil moisture and fertilizer levels are tasks previously requiring humans. But a new generation of robots is now capable of performing some of these more complex farming tasks.
Read on to learn what agricultural robots handle for farmers today.
Seeding and planting
Seeding and planting have traditionally been done by hand or by tractor, which can be imprecise and result in seed wastage. Many researchers are developing a variety of planting robots, with plans for a DIY seed-sowing robot in the works. Fendt takes the concept further by using a swarm of small seeding robots working together to systematically cover large swaths of land.
One area already taking off is aerial seeding by drones. Airplanes have performed aerial seeding for decades, primarily for cover crops or for reforestation after a fire. Now drones can take on this broadcast seeding role, flying at lower altitudes and providing better visualization.
Agriculture robots for spraying fertilizers and pesticides employ a technique known as spot spraying, which uses AI to determine where to spray. This approach reduces chemical usage, saving money and reducing environmental impact while being more effective.
Japanese vendor Yanmar’s spraying robot tailored for use exclusively in vineyards uses electrostatic spraying to cover both visible and hidden parts of the plant. This robot also can traverse the steep slopes frequently found in vineyards. Other firms are displacing airplanes with spraying drones.
The next generation of harvesting robots uses visual analysis and AI to gently pluck delicate crops, such as strawberries or lettuce. These agriculture robots not only pick the crops, but they also distinguish between ripe and unripe produce to maximize yield. While it may be a little longer before these more sensitive harvesting robots get used at scale, innovators have proved smart harvesters work.
Weeding and mowing
Weeding is a critical agriculture task that often requires some savvy. Some mechanical weeders simply churn up the soil around the plant and are easier to make autonomous. Sensors, however, have allowed innovators to infuse their weeding robots with intelligence to distinguish between crops and invader species, only removing the weeds. These smarter weeders get closer to the plant without fear of damaging it and do a better job controlling nutrient-hogging weeds. Carbon Robotics goes one step further, using lasers to zap weeds while avoiding crops.
Mowing has its share of solutions, with providers like Hire Henry offering semi-autonomous solutions where one operator controls ten mowers and Scythe Robotics’ fully autonomous electric mowers.
Transporting, lifting, and towing
Transporting crops is a little easier to offload to robots. Whether it’s lifting crates of freshly picked blueberries onto a tractor or dragging containers of zucchini, removing the burden of lifting, carrying, and dragging reduces strain on humans. Burro is a Formant partner offering an autonomous collaborative robot that helps workers pick and transport crops, enabling farmers to scale up quickly. Some transport agriculture robots were developed exclusively for farming, but general-purpose transport robots also work in some scenarios.
Inspection and monitoring
Inspection and monitoring agriculture robots provide farmers with information about soil moisture, pollution rates, fertilization, pests, disease, and more. Robots take readings, examine plants for signs of blight, determine when to harvest crops, and improve crop yields. Inspection and monitoring robots operate both in the field and in greenhouses where they monitor greenhouse gasses and humidity levels.
Many inspection and monitoring tools are land-based so they can get up close to the plants, but drones in the air also play a role in inspection and monitoring. These drones gather information on crop health and growth stages, empowering farmers with information to optimize crop yields, lower costs, and increase sustainability.
With more and more mouths to feed, the future for agriculture robots is bright. Their ability to improve efficiency, yield, and environmental sustainability, will help the industry increase productivity and keep costs down while adapting to emerging threats and challenges