Robots in agriculture: the revolution?

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It is becoming clear that many in the farming industry will have to improve productivity in order to survive the changes ahead, will robotics assist with this?

You may have seen our previous article on whether robotics could play a part in “filling the gap” left by the fall in the number of seasonal agricultural workers coming to the UK, an issue that was becoming apparent even before Brexit. It is becoming clear that many in the farming industry will have to improve productivity in order to survive the changes ahead, will robotics assist with this?

At the beginning of the year the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) warned that “…Britain is falling significantly behind major competitor countries in the rate of growth of productivity – with pace-setters like the USA and the Netherlands growing productivity three times faster than we are domestically”. That productivity gap is said to be worth over £4.3 billion in lost GDP between 2000 to 2013 alone and the AHDB warn that a “revolution in agricultural productivity will be needed – and fast - if we are to capitalise on Brexit, continue to feed ourselves and protect the environment.”

The AHDB’s five point plan includes a “nationally coordinated strategy for research and innovation”; but with the end of BPS and a glyphosate ban looming, is the prospect of that revolution realistic?

The revolution

There has been publicity around automated strawberry picking, driverless tractors and, more recently, even “Fitbits” for cows; Harper Adams University even harvested a hectare of wheat using just machinery – no person set foot on land during the experiment. But there are different perspectives on whether the “Hands Free Hectare” demonstrated the viability of robots in commercial farming. We are fortunate to have spoken to Professor Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams who headed the project. His view is that the experiment was a demonstration of what could be done, not necessarily what should or would be. Many of the tasks that were automated were not those where the use of labour is a concern; the need is for robots to replace the labour-dependent tasks, such as hand weeding and hand harvesting.

Professor Blackmore’s view is that in some respects it is already too late. It will not be possible for the necessary technology to be developed before we exit the European Union – most machines are still just research prototypes. What is needed urgently is funding to enable machines which are commercially viable to be produced.

Let’s start with weeds

There is also a need to move away from larger machines towards intelligent targeted input and precision farming. The impending glyphosate ban could encourage this. Even after Brexit it is likely that the UK will have to adhere to the ban, if it wishes to continue to trade with the EU. Professor Blackmore says that it is not the chemicals that should be banned but the machines that apply chemicals, indiscriminately, to a whole field. He believes that the first robots on the market should be robotic weeders, targeting individual plants. He informed us that there are prototype robots which can identify numerous species of weed in a field and apply chemicals to them in a targeted manner. Alternatively, laser-targeted technology is being developed, which would reduce the use of chemicals and be much less costly for the environment and for farmers.

We put some questions to Professor Blackmore in order to explore some of the common concerns surrounding robotics and new technology.

Won’t robots be expensive?
The simple answer is no. Rather than selling or leasing the robots, the idea is to supply them through a service model. Instead of recruiting seasonal workers (or approaching an agency to do this for you), you would get in touch with the company, pay a per hectare subscription to it and engage it to kill your weeds. This means that it is a commercially viable alternative. It cuts down completely on the up-front cost which would otherwise potentially be prohibitive, particularly for smaller farming businesses.

If everyone is using them, won’t there be a wait for machinery at busy times of the year?
Conventional sprayers can only work for around eight hours a day and are then limited to operating in certain weather conditions. These robots could work for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week including during conditions in which current sprayers would not be able to operate.

Surely this kind of technology will only benefit larger farms?
Advances in robotics will help all farms as it will reduce the overall cost of production. It will increase efficiency of small farms as the technology will be more affordable and accessible, due to the service model which is proposed.

Won’t robots cause job losses in an already shrinking rural workforce?
Any displacement of agricultural workers has already occurred through the advances in the size and capability of machinery and equipment, GPS and such like. Farms will still need farm managers and machinery operators, but they will oversee the robots instead of driving the machines themselves. The biggest effect will be on seasonal workers, but this will solve a problem rather than create one, as that workforce is already shrinking.

It is clear that if the industry is to meet the challenges that it is to face then there is an urgent need for investment in the development of technology, such as these prototypes.
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