Robots will make agriculture greener

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.