Robots Are Coming to Agriculture. Will They Make Big Ag More Sustainable?

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Robots are making their way into agriculture, potentially altering the farming landscape across the world, according to Lux Research.

Planting the Seeds of a Robot Revolution: How Autonomous Systems Are Integrating into Precision Agriculture, says that while cost is a barrier to widespread adoption, it is on the downward slope.

“Currently robots often aren’t affordable — cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption,” said Sara Olson, Lux Research analyst and lead author of the report. “However, the costs of many systems are coming down, while wages rise due to labor shortages in some areas, and the benefits robots bring in the form of increased accuracy and precision will start to pay off in coming years.”

For example, “autosteer” systems for tractors and harvesters can be cost-effective for corn growers with large operations, and have achieved a nearly 10 percent market penetration, the report says. The gap between labor cost and Autosteer- or Edrive-assisted labor in US corn farming is relatively small and will become negligible by 2020.

Additionally, a strawberry-harvesting robot is approximately the cost-equivalent to human labor in Japan, but only when shared by multiple farms, the report says. With strawberry-picking being slow and labor-intensive, and labor scarce and expensive — the average agricultural worker in Japan is over 70 years old — the robot is quickly likely to become the cheaper option.

And while most companies are focusing on cost savings as a rationale for using robotic systems in agriculture, robots can bring environmental benefits to the fields, Olson told Environmental Leader.

“Environmental benefits from robots will be indirect for the most part,” Olson said. “Steering and spraying automation systems mean fewer oversprays and less waste, for a lower total chemical load on a field. Most automation systems provide some degree of increased efficiency, meaning reduced waste, which in some cases will be an environmental benefit.”

Agricultural robots are a piece of the broader precision agriculture space, which can improve sustainable farming practices, Olson said. “Everything from sensors to drones to satellite imagery and better software management for people and equipment — these are all pieces of this puzzles that allow growers to use less pesticides, less water, produce less waste and improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture.”

Schneider Electric, for example, is leveraging its Internet of Things-enabled WeatherSentry platform to help the agriculture industry prioritize activity based on 15-day forecasts, leading to less waste, increased safety and more efficiency.

DuPont’s Pioneer has collaborated with eight Midwestern universities through their respective soil nutrition management experts to help growers more sustainably maximize crop yields using less fertilizer.

And in 2013, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation for about $930 million in an effort to help farmers use big data to produce more crops while using fewer natural resources.

In addition to agriculture, other industries are already using robots to improve efficiencies. For example, the public water utility in Arlington, Texas is using a robot and materials by Red Zone Robotics to cruise the city’s sewer pipes and look for potential infrastructure problems.

The water utility is not alone in using robots — a report from Navigant Research found robots, especially drones, can help electric utilities reduce costs, improve safety, and increase reliability and response times across their systems. The report forecasts annual global revenue for drone and robotics technologies for transmission and distribution will grow from $131.7 million in 2015 to $4.1 billion in 2024.

Because existing recycling techniques like shredding only recover some materials from electronics, Apple invented Liam, a recycling robot, that the company says can disassemble 1.2 million phones a year, sorting all of their valuable materials so they can be recycled and reducing the need for mining resources.

And several European companies — London’s food delivery app company Just Eat, German retail chain Metro AG, logistics company Hermes Group, and U.K. food delivery startup Pronto Technology — are trialing deliveries using self-driving robots, Industry Week reports.

Starship Technologies, the London-based company that makes the self-driving robots, says it will likely announce some US customers in upcoming months.

Using robots follows an overall trend of using technology to improve environment, health and safety performance — a key topic at the recent Environmental Leader conference in Denver. “The digital transformation means, for EHS, an all-new level of power to generate, organize, analyze and communicate large quantities of information,” LNS Research analyst Peter Bussey told conference attendees.

As robots, drones and other emerging technologies become more cost-effective and companies realize their potential for savings and improved efficiencies, we expect to see more turning to artificial intelligence — and to start touting the sustainability benefits as well.


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