Could robots become the future of farming? As concerns about food supply grow with the changing environment due to climate change and other circumstances, increased development in robot farming is being observed as a possible solution to these problems. However, there are also concerns that using more robots in agriculture than currently can create even more problems, including job shortages and creating more environmental havoc. 

What Is Robot Farming?

Robot Farming is the use of robots in the agriculture industry. These are called agricultural robots, also known as an Agribot. Agribots automate tasks for farmers, boosting the efficiency of production and reducing the industry’s reliance on manual labor. Some main applications of robots in agriculture include harvesting and picking, autonomous mowing, seeding, spraying, and pruning, sorting and packing, and phenotyping.

The environmental benefits of robot farming include swapping traditional, fossil fuel-powered farm machinery for electric robots charged from renewable sources since doing so would cut farming’s carbon emissions. For example, robots equipped with ultraviolet lights to kill mildew on plants could reduce fungicide use by up to 90%.

Some people, including German agricultural economist Thomas Daum, believe that using robots in farming could lead to an ecological utopia. Possibilities in this utopia include robots helping to grow organic produce in eminently sustainable ways around green fields and other spaces where wildlife exists, so both the farm and wildlife can co-exist. By employing robots for labor-intensive work like fertilizing and weeding, farmers can ensure that their agricultural lands and their environs remain fairly pristine. Other ideas include robots spraying targeted amounts of biopesticides sparingly and using laser beams to remove weeds without harming useful insects like bees and other plants in the process. The soil and water sources would remain rich, unpolluted by chemicals leaching into them.

However, there are some concerns that the rapidly increasing use of technology on farms could create a dystopia. Daum pointed out a possible scenario is that large robots are enlisted for mass production in dreary and destructive monocultures with little space left for any biodiversity. They would cultivate a few monoculture crops, leaving environmental havoc in their wake. It is also possible that chemicals, including pesticides, would be sprayed liberally and damage any other plant life. This would eliminate anything that was deemed superfluous to the cause of mass production including wildlife, and this already happens at large monocultural farms. 

The unrestricted use of autonomous farming robots could also create more problems including job shortages. In parts of the world where there is not an agricultural labor shortage, reducing the demand for human workers means that people will need resources and opportunities to retrain in other sectors. This could result in them possibly moving into dangerous, and underpaid jobs in other industries such as mining, which will be needed to produce the materials to make the robots.

Another major concern is that humans will face health and safety concerns from having to work alongside the robots. It is additionally possible that someone could hack a farm robot and force it to do their bidding. There are also concerns over who owns the data collected by robots operated by commercial companies and whether that data will be used for the benefit of those companies, rather than the farmers.

What Impact Could Robot Farming Have Globally?

There are already projects focusing on robot farming all over the world. One project, called Robot Highways, currently demonstrates multiple uses for autonomous robots made by Saga Robotics on a fruit farm in southeast England. The robots treat plant diseases in fields and glasshouses, map out terrain, and also do tasks including picking, packing, and providing logistical support to workers over the course of the project. This is achieved by attaching different tools to an autonomous “base robot.”

Strawberries are treated for disease using UV light. Taken from https://theconversation.com/robot-farmers-could-improve-jobs-and-help-fight-climate-change-if-theyre-developed-responsibly-162718

Robots such as the ones in Robot Highways can take over more of the laborious agricultural work, for which farmers in some countries often struggle to find employees at a cost that keeps food prices competitive. The Robot Highways project produced an estimate that robots may eventually help reduce the number of human farm workers needed by up to 40%. Though these robots would take over the laborious duties human farmers once did, using these robots could potentially create new jobs. The UK’s National Farmers’ Union argued in their report, “The Future Of Food 2040,” that increasing the use of digital technologies in farms will attract younger, skilled people to a sector struggling with an aging workforce.

Florida-based startup Harvest CROO is developing a robot strawberry picker. A single Harvest CROO Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer machine will be able to pick a plant in just 8 seconds and also cover eight acres in a single day. The robot will reportedly be able to replace a team of more than 30 human pickers.

The company focused on “Conservation of Motion” robotics, which means they optimize the individual tasks that a harvester accomplishes. The team decided to use multiple robotic components to separate the picking functions of leaf gathering, visual inspection, picking, and packing. Harvest CROO said that this approach allows them to build simpler robots, which run faster and operate at the scale needed to support current farm operations.

What Impact Could Robot Farming Have In Canada And KW?

Photo provided by the FCC, taken from https://www.greenhousecanada.com/ubc-team-designs-autonomous-agrobot/.

There is also research being performed to develop agricultural robots in Canada. A University of British Columbia student design team is developing a fully autonomous agricultural robot, called the UBC AgroBot. This robot aims to precisely exterminate weeds and fertilize crops as well as record data from a farmer’s operation. The team grew from four to 40 plus students, with backgrounds in various engineering disciplines and many with no prior exposure to agriculture. The AgroBot project currently involves four teams of students. The chassis team designs the mechanical body, structure, and driving system. The extermination team works on the mechanics and chemical design to target weeds. The navigation team develops the autonomous software to navigate crop rows and the image recognition team uses machine learning technology to allow the robot to identify crops and weeds.

The UBC team was the only Canadian university design team planning to attend the AgGrowBot Challenge hosted by Indiana’s Purdue University last May, but the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the AgroBot team from attending. However, their success was noticed at UBC and they were granted official engineering design team status and received financial support from various organizations, including Farm Credit Canada (FCC). With many projects and research being done to further advance agricultural technology, it is possible that farming could rapidly change to relying more heavily on agricultural robots. How soon could they become the future of farming?  Let us know what you think on social media by tagging us with @SustainableWat!

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