Farming is poised to undergo another revolution as robotic systems permeate agriculture production
The mechanization of farming is considered one of the top-ten engineering accomplishments of the 20th century. For instance, before the tractor it took 35 to 40 hours to plant and harvest 100 bushels of corn, but today it takes only 2 hours and 45 minutes. Now, farming is poised to undergo another revolution as robotic systems permeate agriculture production, virtually eliminating labor costs in some cases, dramatically cutting harvesting time, improving efficiency and quality. Automation of farming will benefit mechanized farming countries first, but will have significant implications for developing economies, enabling increased production, while creating serious labor employment challenges.
Robotic systems are rapidly gaining acceptance among dairy farmers. In Europe, 60% of new dairy farms are employing robotic technology, and in the next four to five years half of all new installations in the U.S. are expected to be robotic units. The rapid adoption is being driven by improved quality and efficiency, increased production and reduced costs. New robotic dairy systems can also be more natural for the cows than human milking, in part because the robots let cows decide for themselves when they should be milked, with little human involvement at all. For example, the Lely Astronaut robot milking system dramatically reduces labor costs, integrates testing of the milk at the milking station, and sends important data on teat health, production levels, etc., to the farmer’s smart phone.
Robots will soon be utilized by the last frontier of agricultural mechanization, the most delicate crops—fresh fruits and vegetables. Startup Blue River Technology is testing the Lettuce Bot, which can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand. Another company, Vision Robotics is developing a pruner for wine grapes, which uses robotic arms and cameras to photograph and create a computerized model of the vines, calculate the orientation and the location of buds, in order to determine which to cut down. In Japan, the Institute of Agricultural Machinery has developed a robot that can select and harvest strawberries, based on their color. Ripened berries are detected with the robot’s stereoscopic cameras. The harvesting process takes about nine seconds per berry, from observation to collection. Engineers estimate that the robot will reduce harvesting time by 40%.
In 1870, nearly one in two Americans were farmers. Half the country worked in agriculture. Now that number is closer to one in 50. The number of workers who toil in food production is but a fraction of the population. With fewer, more efficient and high-tech inputs, less agriculture work could feed more people. Today, the big food companies and farms continue to compete, relying on innovating the inputs and more machinery to get more crop yield for less. For example, Automatic Milking Systems (AMS), also referred to as robotic milkers, were developed in Europe and became available there in 1992. This technology was introduced to the US in 2000 and the first robotic milker was installed on a Michigan dairy farm in 2009. There are currently 10 dairy farms in Michigan using robotic milking technology.
The Article is Reprinted from Duxton’s Agri Bits and Pieces Vol. 141