Driverless tractors and robot weeders

Just as we’re becoming used to the idea of driverless cars, driverless tractors and other agricultural robots will soon harvest the food we eat. Source: Enterprize Tech

In fact, agricultural automation – in the form of driverless farm machinery, drone crop dusters, automated milking systems and other emerging technologies – offers “the most important and attractive” global market opportunity for robotics industry players, according to a new report issued by market intelligence firm Tractica.

Major agricultural manufacturers, including John Deere, UK-based CNH Industrial and Yamaha, along with a host of start-ups, are actively pursuing the ag robotics market, which Tractica expects to grow from US$3 billion in 2015 to US$16 billion by the end of 2020 and US$74 billion by 2024.

“Driverless tractors are in the early stages of commercialization,” Clint Wheelock, Tractica managing director and co-author of the report said. “And up to this point have been in the prototype stage.

“With that said, we expect that the next few years will be a time of significant growth for this category, with approximately 500 unit shipments in 2016 – marking the beginning of true commercialization – about 1600 units in 2017, and more than 4100 in 2018.”

Driving the growth in agricultural automation is a convergence of “food crisis” coming to bear on the worldwide agricultural industry, including:

  • An explosion in the world’s population from 7.3 billion today to 8.2 billion by 2025
  • A near doubling in global demand for food over the next 10 years
  • A deceleration in crop yield growth
  • A scarcity of farm labor due to an aging farm workforce and depopulating rural areas

Exploiting this market will be a difficult according to Tractica.

“Robotic solutions have to deal with unstructured environments and unstructured targets,” Tractica said.

“The farm environment is usually dynamic, uncertain, complex, highly variable, and hostile. And the targets for the agricultural robots are non-uniform, delicate, and need proper techniques.

“It is still hard to replace human-like dexterity with high reliability in many agricultural processes.”

Beyond the technical challenge of perfecting robots for farm environments, Tractica said the biggest technological hurdle is disjointed development efforts by companies.

Agricultural technology companies are pursuing product development in a fragmented way with little to no collaboration on enabling technologies. This extends to positioning systems, used to determine the location of a robot.

While GPS is the de facto standard as an outdoor positioning infrastructure, the current state of GPS is proving to be insufficient.

Other methods for positioning using machine vision, lasers, magnetic compasses, optical, wave-radar, model matching and beacons, or artificial landmarks are still in the R&D phase, according to Tractica, including hybrid positioning systems, and are not mature enough for realtime outdoor applications.

Robotics manufacturers are focusing their development efforts on several types of agricultural machinery, including driverless tractors. Tractica estimates that it will take about 10 years for driverless tractors to make more economic sense for smaller farmer.

Tractica reports a sharp increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for crop surveillance, drastically increasing crop yields while minimizing walking the fields or airplane fly-over filming and they are quickly becoming a popular choice among growers.

With respect to soil management, which includes tilling, weeding, fertilizing and managing soil nutrients precise tilling by autonomous robots has strong potential because farmers are constantly beset by weeds, which consume the nutrients intended for crops use and damage crop yields.

Weeding robots are in development that destroy weeds by pulling them out of the ground, directing lasers or microwaves at them or spraying them with herbicides.

Robots are under development that will apply fertilizer at the right location, while the plant is rapidly growing.

While there is concern that agricultural robots will take jobs from farm workers, Tractica argues that the benefits of agricultural automation outweigh the disadvantages.

However, the global agriculture sector faces significant challenges with regard to an aging workforce and, even in developing countries, there is a massive population drain in rural areas and a worsening shortage of farm labor, even with a tangible increase in salaries.

Agricultural robots will be a major boon in closing these gaps while continuing to increase agricultural productivity to serve the world’s growing demand for food Tractica anticipates driverless tractors will stay below 10% of total tractor sales through 2024 due to price sensitivity and long replacement cycles.