As the global population increases, sustainable food production remains one of the highest priorities for the human race in the foreseeable future. Climate change, nuclear advancement, global terrorism, and other challenges continue to pose a threat to agricultural sustainability, which is crucial to our survival.
But beyond utilizing traditional methods, like human labour and mechanized farming for production, can intelligent technology like robotics be applied in the farming process to stabilize food sustainability?
Here, we’ll venture into the agricultural sector of technology and engineering, exploring the current innovations already making this vision a reality.
Are We Running Out of Food?
According to a report by the United Nations, the global population is expected to hit 8.6 billion by the year 2050. Experts posit that a potential global food shortage could be imminent in a few decades, if not sooner. Especially if we fail to ramp up current volumes of food production to meet growing demand. To achieve global food sustainability, we simply must produce more quality food and sustain production levels at a reasonably higher rate than both the current and projected demand.
Is There a Viable Solution to Ramp Up Current Supply?
From the engineering perspective, the obvious solution is to strengthen agricultural processes by utilizing new technology. Supplementing manpower (which is limited and unreliable) with robotics for agricultural processes is the next logical step to boost overall production. In essence, robots are part of a move towards precision agriculture, as machine-aided labour has historically proven to be more efficient and sustainable long-term.
Why Is Automated Agriculture Beneficial for Sustainable Supply?
One critical concern for the global agricultural economy is the declining share of the population engaging in agriculture, especially in the developed countries of the world. According to a report by Our World in Data, only 5% of the population in developed nations is currently engaging in agriculture, versus as 66% in developing countries. There are fewer hands to work on farms than ever before.
How Is Robotics Shaping Automated Agriculture?
Today, robotics aided with Artificial Intelligence (AI) are employed to automate a range of farming processes, particularly in planting, harvesting, and storage. These collaborative machines are known as “Agricultural Robots,” or Agrobots.
Agrobots are machines designed to supplement or replace human manpower in various farming roles and tasks. These robots can be programmed to perform everyday farming activities like picking up fresh fruit, planting seeds, watering plants, spraying fungicides and pesticides, and more. While these farming activities are highly important to the growth and production of crops, they are usually priced as low-wage jobs for humans.
Economically, it makes sense to pass on many of these jobs to machines since they traditionally pay below the minimum wage. This keeps the costs of running a farm within acceptable levels and focuses on boosting production to make more food available for supply. It’s important to mention here that not every aspect of the farming process can or will be contracted to Agrobots, as many aspects of production still require human-level initiative and experience.
Some common Agrobots include:
Drones are flown over wide expanses of farmland for real-time monitoring and data collection. They obtain data about prevailing environmental conditions and relay them back to the farmer on the ground.
Unlike conventional machines, Robotic Tractors can operate autonomously, or collaborate with another human-driven vehicle, e.g. a combine Harvester to pick up grains. They utilize a mix of advanced sensors, GPS, and vision-based technology for detecting location and direction. They move at different speeds, have the ability to work around the clock, and are more productive than human-driven tractors. For example, here’s an autonomous tractor developed for the Hackaday 2016 competition.
Fresh Fruit Harvesters
These robots have mechanical arms for harvesting fresh produce. Some models have arms that do not come in contact with the fruits themselves, but gently break of twigs holding them and put them away for storage.
What’s the Technology Behind Agrobots?
An agricultural robot is a remote-controlled machine composed of a power supply, interconnected sensors, lighting, video cameras, 12-volt DC motors, and mechanical moving parts that are used to perform some farming function.
Control is via Radio Frequency (RF) system interfaced with microcontrollers. The RF transmitter encodes the instructions and relays them to the machine in real time. The Agrobot holds the RF receiver that intercepts these signals, decodes them, and implements some basic mechanical action like picking up a fruit, spraying fumigant, milking a cow, and more.
A human user operates the controller to manoeuvre the robot around the field using the video cameras during the day and night vision/artificial light for nighttime operations. DC motors are connected to rollers/tyres that allow for multi-directional navigation. A few basic motions are forwards, backwards, left turn, right turn, stop, or a combination of any of these motions.
Many Agrobots are powered by renewable energy – a solar panel and battery system. The electrical circuit components are enclosed in a metal alloy or tough plastic (polymer) framework for complete insulation from water, moisture, and dust. Agrobots are capable of working under all weather conditions, round the clock, and all year long.
Robot Applications in Modern Agriculture
The applications of robotics to supplement agricultural processes are robust and diverse. Here are a few aspects where they are currently being employed:
Cloud seeding is the process of artificially stimulating precipitation to boost crop growth at locations where there is relatively low humidity. Drones are used to disperse dry ice or crystals of silver iodide into the atmosphere to stimulate rainfall.
Agrobots are now being used alongside geo-mapping for precision seeding. They can work with autonomous tractors to disperse seeds at specific locations and depths where they have the best chance of maturing. This helps to maximize yield and conserve arable land.
Real-Time Monitoring and Data Collection
Drones are now being used to monitor large expanses of farmland in real time. Equipped with geo-mapping technology and temperature and humidity sensors, they collect data about prevailing environmental conditions and relay it to the farmer on the ground via proprietary software.
Robots are also finding application in dairy farms around the world. Collaborative robots can assist farmers to milk livestock more efficiently. According to IDTechEx, the use of mobile robots in dairy farming is already a $1.6 Billion dollar industry that is set to expand as the technology becomes more commercially viable and available to farmers around the world.
Robotics and Agriculture: Outlook for the Future
Two major bottlenecks for deployment of agricultural robots are the high costs of developing new technology and lack of enabling legislation to encourage and approve the use of Agrobots.
With a seamless combination of robotics, AI, and enabling legislation, current production yields from the agricultural sector can be improved. Automated agriculture will be particularly advantageous in developed countries where the volume of skilled manpower has declined considerably.
In the future, it can be trialled and deployed in developing countries to boost the economy and expanding access to industry-specific technology. But in the meantime, there’s still a lot of work to be done to enhance existing agricultural robotics, and it’s up to engineers to fill in the gaps.