Advances in farming robotics could address shortage in agricultural workers


Between 1948 and 2011, the annual production of US farms increased by an average of 1.49% every year according to data collected and analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the two decades between 1991 and 2011, cow milk and corn production levels rose by about one-third and table grape production rose by 28%. Productivity gains in agriculture stem from a variety of factors, such as technological advances in machinery or chemical inputs as well as labor productivity levels.

Although US farm production is fairly healthy, there are concerns for making sure that production levels continue to increase at a fast enough rate to account for expected global population growth in the coming decades. A July 2015 report published by the USDA’s Economic Research Service noted that restricted investment from the federal government in agricultural research could limit total factor productivity on American farms over the coming decades.

This is compounded by a recent United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization forecast that global demand for food could increase 70% by 2050. If American farms could increase productivity to meet that demand, it would be an economic boon.

More and more, the agricultural world is looking towards the mechanization of labor processes through robotics as a way of potentially increasing their productivity. Robotics was identified as a sector of investment growth in agricultural tech by an April 2014 white paper on agriculture technologies published by the entrepreneurship and education non-profit Kauffman Foundation.

It’s important to understand first that the robotics being developed for commercial use on farms won’t be stand-alone humanoid units ranging through fields to pick crops. Any piece of hardware implementing an algorithm which automates some of the manual work of farming falls under this heading.

One good example of this is the LettuceBot, a precision thinning technology which works to visually characterize plants in a lettuce row, identify which plants to keep and eliminating unwanted plants to optimize yield. The unit doesn’t move by itself but is guided along by a tractor instead.

The technology has been developed by Blue River Technology of Sunnyvale, CA, a company which has attracted $13 million in investment between 2011 and 2014 to commercialize this product. The LettuceBot’s creators hope to provide the technology as a third-party service to farm owners before manufacturing the unit for commercial sale.

It’s a little easier to see the work of individual laborers being replaced by the HV-100 mobile robots being marketed by Harvest Automation. These robotic units are designed to handle a wide array of plant handling tasks in greenhouses or outdoor environments, tasks such as plant collection, spacing and consolidation.

The company sells the HV-100 for use in greenhouse, hoophouse or nursery environments and the unit requires no programming on the part of a farmer. As of this April, the HV-100 was already catering to 30 customers with the company expecting to make more of a push into produce and not just nursery settings.

A similar robotics product developed by Harvest Automation, the OmniVeyor TM-100, provides automated warehouse product collection and movement for e-commerce applications.

Berry picking is another farm task where labor can be used more productively thanks to the SW 6010, a robotic strawberry harvester developed by Spanish agricultural tech firm Agrobot. The SW 6010 picks strawberries from the bush when fully grown and sends the picked berries along on a conveyor belt towards a single operator who packages the fruit which is ready for sale.

The strawberry harvester utilizes an artificial vision system known as AGvision which uses imaging sensors and data analysis to pick the ripest berries based on color and size. The harvesting unit itself has 24 robotic arms, each with two 24-volt DC motors. The artificial vision system scans strawberry beds at rates of 20 images a second to find the berries which are ready to be picked.

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