What is robotic farming?

Robotic farming is one of the most well-known applications of robotics, helping farmers all over the world to meet the growing demand of feeding the world’s population.

Simply put, robotic farming is the use of agricultural robots in the production of food and non-food items, and is a subset of field robotics.  

The use of agricultural robots is mostly commercialized, with robots used majorly by businesses rather than individuals, which is driving the rapid growth of the industry. It is estimated that spending on robotic farming surpassed $6 billion globally in 2022 and projects a combined aggregate growth rate of 14%, reaching total spending of $18 billion in 2030.

Let’s dive into what’s driving the industry’s growth. 

Robotic farming drivers

Market Research Future estimates spending on robotic farming surpassed $6 billion globally in 2022 and projects a combined aggregate growth rate of 14%, reaching total spending of $18 billion in 2030. The largest percentage is spent on automated harvest robots, followed by milking robots. 

The automated harvest robot market is composed of new robotic market entrants like Naïo Technologies and Blue River Technology along with traditional farming machinery providers such as John Deere and AGCO moving from exclusively mechanical machines into robotic and robotic-assisted solutions. The dairy industry has been fairly mechanized, however, traditional equipment manufacturers have been adding robotic elements over the past several years. 

Multiple global trends are driving the growth in robotic farming, including:

  • Worldwide population growth. The current global population of 8 billion humans is expected to rise to 9.7 billion by 2050. That is a lot of mouths to feed from limited farmable surface area. As a result, researchers and innovators are looking at how to produce more food sustainably with existing natural resources and robotic farming is part of that solution. 
  • Global climate change. Climate change is affecting agriculture around the globe. Farmers need better data and forecasting information to attempt to maintain yields under changing and more extreme conditions. At the same time, carbon emission-cutting goals are driving a shift toward more electric solutions rather than traditional gas-powered machinery. 
  • Labor constraints. Labor shortages and the resulting rising labor costs, coupled with immigration policies impacting migrant labor for seasonal harvesting, have made farmers hungry for alternatives. Robotic farming promises to enable farmers to do more with fewer humans more efficiently.

Benefits of robotic farming

Farming and agriculture may not be grabbing the headlines in the technology press, but today’s farmers are blazing digital trails to survive and thrive.

  • Increased efficiency. Robots are often more efficient than humans. Robots don’t need breaks, they can’t get injured, and heat or cold doesn’t slow them down. Robots don’t get bored and aren’t mistake-prone, which results in more efficient operations. However, efficiency doesn’t magically occur–successful robotic farming projects also feature careful planning and expectation management
  • Cost savings. Increasing efficiency usually leads to saving money, but robotic farming can save money in other ways as well. Precision farming allows farmers to precisely target which plants must be treated with pesticides or herbicides. Big data on a granular level enables farmers to tailor watering, fertilizing, and manual weeding to the just right amount. Finally, typically a single operator can shepherd multiple robots, saving even more on labor.
  • Reducing risk and danger. One clear benefit of robotics is the ability to keep people at a distance from danger. Heavy farming machinery represents a risk and almost every farmer knows someone injured in some way doing farmwork. Robots can also spray in mountainous areas, which is far safer than navigating an airplane to complete the same task. 
  • Addressing labor concerns. So much of global agriculture is heavily dependent on seasonal, migrant labor. Sometimes the flow of farm workers is interrupted by war, civil unrest, pandemic illnesses, or changes in immigration policies. The uncertainty around such a critical variable has driven farmers to experiment with other solutions requiring fewer people, such as robotic farming. At the same time, it keeps existing farm staff safer, and working with robots that make their jobs easier. 
  • Sustainability. Precision farming with robots enables farmers to target the individual needs of plants and soil, which reduces pollution, conserves soil, and increases yields. Robotic farming can facilitate crop rotation or adopting newer farming practices like no-till, hydroponic farming, and UV light treatment for mildew instead of fungicide.

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Farming and agriculture may not be grabbing the headlines in the technology press, but today’s farmers are blazing digital trails to survive and thrive.

Impact of government activity on robotic farming

Because food production is such a critical issue, governments have always funded new technologies, research, and infrastructure investments. Some of these programs related to robotic farming are:

  • Robs4Crops. Robs4Crops is a four-year project funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program. The program is focused on mechanical weed control and spraying against pests and diseases. At four sites across the EU, Robs4Crops is working to develop a robotic farming solution consisting of smart implements, autonomous mobile vehicles, and a farming controller. 
  • UK Research and Innovation’s Farming Innovation Program. This program is run by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs and provides multi-year funding to develop new products or services, such as robotic farming, that address challenges in agriculture.
  • United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Science Foundation (NSF) as well as state and local grants. These U.S. government agencies provide funding to researchers and developers of robotic farming products and services to address agriculture challenges. Many state and local governments offer their own agriculture innovation grants as well. Grants fund everything from big data collection in agriculture to robotic-enabled indoor vertical farming in urban areas. The National Robotic Initiative (NRI) is a collaboration between the NSF, the USDA, and some other agencies to explore collaborative robots that work with or alongside humans. 

Additional government actions include programs to reach specific environmental benchmarks or milestones. The European Green Deal uses two different strategies–farm to fork and biodiversity–with the goal of reducing chemical pesticide usage by 50% by 2030. In support of that goal, the EU recently passed stricter regulations on pesticides. In the U.S., the government has historically eschewed significant regulation of farming in favor of payments to farmers for behaviors that support government goals, such as pollution runoff reduction or soil conservation. All these goals can be advanced with robotic farming. 

Types of robots in robotic farming

Robots working in robotic farming today come in all shapes and sizes, doing both jobs that seem tailor-made for robots, like sowing, and those that seem like more of a stretch, such as selecting the perfectly ripe strawberry and delicately picking it. Despite this range, most agriculture robots fit into one of the following large categories of robots. 

  • Robotic large-scale farm machinery. While tech-forward scrappy startups were experimenting with what robots might be able to do in farming, long-term providers of mechanical farming machinery like John Deere were working on how to bring the power of robotics to their tried-and-true form factors. 
  • Autonomous mobile robots. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are simply robots that move about independently. The tasks these robots can do are wide-ranging, from monitoring and inspecting to harvesting and transporting. Typically, these robots operate on the ground. 
  • Drones. Drones are pilotless aircraft that can be outfitted to do everything from detailed geological surveys to crop monitoring to spraying to counting livestock. While many drones are teleoperated (that is, flown by an operator from a distance), other drones get deployed to autonomously perform a specific task at a particular location, such as selecting and picking apples. 
  • Collaborative robots. Collaborative robots, sometimes nicknamed cobots, work collaboratively with humans–either next to them or with them. Cobots doing robotic farming can be found following humans while hauling fruit from the field to the truck, or picking strawberries.

Robotic farming of livestock applications

While you might think that robots are only involved in the growing of plants. However, there are plenty of robotic farming applications for livestock, including:

Robotic cleaning and sanitation

Cleaning and sanitation on the farm is a vital activity, but an awfully dirty one to hire for. Robots are now used to maintain the health and hygiene of livestock. From automating the removal of manure from cow sheds or enclosures for pregnant pigs to keeping machinery sanitized, farmers can improve herd health and reduce stress on animals who appear unbothered by the autonomous robots scouring the floors.  

Chicken coops and hen houses need regular cleaning and sanitation, all while not harming or stressing the chickens, and companies are developing automated solutions for sanitizing in this unique environment.

Animal health monitoring and tracking

When you make your living with livestock, your investment is literally walking around on your farm or grazing lands. Especially in the poultry industry, illness can run through a group of animals quickly, so applications allowing farmers to monitor animal health can be very attractive. 

Cattle and sheep must be protected and have their grazing needs met. Wearables for livestock can perform double duty, tracking the animal’s location along with food intake, sleep, and other health indicators, allowing farmers to determine which animals might be a bit under the weather before illness becomes apparent. Drones equipped with thermal imaging can even spot a cow with a fever or signs of heat stress. 

Sometimes, a robot just lets a farmer rest easy. Moocall is a small device farmers can attach to the tail of a cow about to calve. The robot monitors the cow and alerts the farmer when the cow is in labor, sparing farmers from checking all night on mamas-to-be.

Poultry farming is also particularly vulnerable to viruses and germs that can quickly sweep through enclosed spaces. Many poultry farming robotic innovations are focused on early detection of unwell chickens. Providers like Poultry Patrol and ChickenBoy use thermal imaging to determine if a chicken is feverish and AI and robotic vision compare chicken gaits against their peers to determine if the attention of a farmer is needed.

Robotic herding and counting

Drones are getting in on the action of herding livestock and ensuring no one gets left behind. In addition to herding, sometimes called bio-herding, drones can also observe the movement of animals and check on fences and watering holes to ensure livestock health. Thermal imaging makes it even easier to find a stray sheep. 

Not all animal management with robots is done from the sky; robots can act as shepherds on the ground as well. SwagBot, for example, is a nimble robot designed to roam all over remote farms in the Australian outback, checking on livestock, making note of breaks in fencing, and ensuring watering stations are operational. 

Lack of water or a cow making a break for it are just some of the challenges livestock farmers face. Some of the other dangers to livestock are predators, such as wolves. Researchers are working on sheepdog robots to protect animals, while others are deploying multiple AMRs working together in groups to deter wolves.

Robotic milking

Milking has long been done with machinery rather than the hands of legions of milkmaids, so the extension of robotics to an already mechanized segment makes sense. In fact, the first fully automated milking system was introduced in 1992 by the European company Lely

Robotic milking is a complex process. Cows wear electronic collars that can identify each cow, and track her health, her eating, and whether it is time for her to be milked. Cows ready to be milked are herded to be milked while the others are herded back to pasture. Robots sanitize the cows’ teats before attaching the milking cups. They can also analyze the milk and send it to filtering and storage tanks.

Robotic egg collection

For poultry farms generating eggs, some give chickens the ability to roam and be “free range.” Robots can be especially helpful in addressing the challenges of free-range layers. Some robots can nudge birds around on the coop floor to exercise them and encourage them to lay their eggs in the laying boxes. 
Some chickens in a free-range configuration don’t make it to a laying box and therefore there are eggs on the floor, where they can get stepped on or missed. Robotic egg collection robots can move around the coop floor and find and then gently collect stray eggs, increasing both safety and yields. At the same time, other robots are monitoring chicken health through a variety of sensors, enabling farmers to make use of rich data collected by robots.

Robotic farming of plants applications

Labor may be the main driver for robotics in this setting, but robotic farming of crops is also an area where big data and monitoring technologies are getting farmers closer to care on the individual plant level. Some of the core categories of robotic farming of plants are:

Inspection and monitoring

Robotic farming has enabled a new level of tailoring to crop management in large part due to inspection and monitoring robots. These robots can test soil before planting and at multiple stages afterward to determine which plants need fertilizers or pesticides. There are even robots that can inspect and monitor fields of solar panels.

Seeding and planting

Seeding is traditionally done by sowing machines or by hand for small-scale operations, however, robotic farming is changing the game. In addition to robots planting a variety of seeds, precision farming technology can simultaneously apply fertilizer evenly and in far smaller quantities by applying it exactly on the plant. 

Not all seeding activity occurs on the ground. Newer, no-till agriculture methods make aerial seeding by drones attractive, and drones can also drop seeds for cover crops to stop erosion or repopulate trees after a forest fire.

Spraying and treatment

Farmers use robots to spray crops with fertilizers and chemicals to treat pests and diseases. Drones can replace traditional, manned aircraft and apply sprays with much greater precision and accuracy. This targeted use is achieved by equipping drones with an array of sensors, communication bandwidth, geolocation technology, and artificial intelligence.


Robots that assist with the heavy work of harvesting are in demand. Mechanical harvesting of some crops like wheat or corn is very mature, so the transition to a robotic method is a smoother path. But many delicate crops such as berries, lettuce, citrus, and grapes are only now able to be picked by robots, due to the array of sensors, machine learning, and artificial intelligence that can determine if the crop is ripe and how to pick it without creating damage.

farmer with remote AI


Weeding is an important farming activity, but it’s difficult to ensure only the weeds are disturbed and the crops stay safe. Improved high-resolution cameras, complemented with artificial intelligence and sensors, let robots select only the weeds for extraction and are at work in fields today. Weeding robots allow farmers to use fewer pesticides, herbicides, and chemicals in favor of a manual extraction method, or even lasers!

Specialty robotic weeding solutions for certain delicate crops such as grapes in vineyards are also available. In addition to correctly distinguishing between the weeds from the grapevine, the robots also must navigate the uneven, sometimes terraced nature of vineyards with agility. Similar combinations of technology are used for thinning delicate crops like lettuce, so plant energy can be directed to the main plant.

Transporting, lifting, and towing

Farm work is hard on a human body and, aside from picking low-to-the-ground crops by hand, transportinglifting, and towing might cause the greatest amount of wear and tear. Fortunately, a number of agriculture robots are here to carry some of the load–literally. Some are AMRs that navigate independently from field to warehouse, while others operate as collaborative robots, trailing their human and saving on trips back to the truck or warehouse.

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