Are farming robots really going to take the agricultural jobs? This is one of the questions that I frequently get asked and I’m sorry to say, yes, they are. But wait, how are they going to do this? How long is it going to take? Which jobs are they going to take?
The world’s population is growing and the demand for fruit and vegetables is also increasing. There are also many challenges with the current immigration climate. For the people that work in farm jobs, it’s hard to find replacement work in these areas after those jobs disappear.
I commented this past Friday on a Univision National News piece about how farms are automating some functions with robots and how many of these farm jobs are bound to disappear. Why? Simple. Many of these technologies are moving from Silicon Valley, to the nearby San Joaquin Valley. Here is the piece (in Spanish)
Fruit and produce are spoiling due to a lack of workforce, so no matter how expensive these robots might seem at the beginning, eventually, they get depreciated by businesses and they start getting a return on investment.
These robots don’t look like Iron Man
I think people are waiting for a humanoid robot that looks like Iron Man to appear and start picking up oranges or strawberries. The reality is that these robots are the robotic versions of mechanized farm machinery that can now perform these functions. In many cases, you’ll see these smart farming machinery being attached to existing tractors. Why add the cost of self-propulsion if all farms already have equipment that do that just fine?
With the low cost of sensors and cameras, there is an arms race to build equipment that can automate planting, picking, fertilizing and the application of pesticides.
Enter the farming robots
An innovative company called Blue River Technology is manufacturing a machine that’s using computer vision and artificial intelligence that can recognize the weeds in a field and spray only those. It basically uses a picture database of what the weeds look like and when it sees one, it sprays it. It’s being tested on lettuce and cotton and many other crops are coming. By identifying up to 90% of weeds, it reduces herbicide usage significantly. See it in action in the video below.
This company also created a Lettuce Bot used to thin out lettuce plantations. When lettuce is planted, they are over seeded as they don’t know how many plants are going to germinate and farmers need to make sure that enough plants are going to make it. The problem is that the extra plants need to be removed so there is enough space in between for healthy lettuce to grow.
When the LettuceBot passes through, it uses advanced computer vision algorithms to determine the perfect distance between lettuce plants and it applies an overdose of fertilizer to the unwanted ones. This is normally a labor-intensive job that now gets done more efficiently and precisely by this machine.
Autonomous driving is not just for Google
Autonomous vehicles are not just being tested in the streets of California and Nevada, a few companies are manufacturing tractors that are completely driverless. They are using the same sensors being used by autonomous vehicles and have the advantage that they are being driven in farm fields so the regulations are more lax, since they don’t need to interact with other people or cars. As their street driving counterparts, they use GPS for automated driving, lidar sensors for surrounding object awareness and are increasingly starting to be controlled from a computer rather than from a steering wheel.
Some fruits are harder to pick than others, enter robotic citrus harvesting
A company called Energid has created a prototype robotic citrus harvester, when you watch it in slow motion, it looks like a chameleon launching its long tongue to an unsuspecting prey. In this case, the citrus is identified and knocked out of the tree with a swift blow to the stem.
No strawberries left behind
The Spanish company Agrobot has created a strawberry picker that can select and separate strawberries depending on their size and degree of ripeness and pass it down a conveyor where they are packed instantly. The robotic manipulators have cameras that use imaging technology to identify by shape and using color analysis, only the strawberries in the specified conditions are picked.
Automated Home Farming
The company Farmbot has created an open source robotic machine that will cultivate enough vegetables for a person for a whole year and it costs less than $3,000. You can create your own farm by dragging and dropping plants on a computer program that looks like a game. The plants are automatically spaced and you can apply a growing regimen once planting is finished. This means that each plant can get water at different times and it can even take the weather into consideration. This is designed for your own home garden but it’s just a matter of time until these smart robots can take over a large farm to cultivate massive amounts of vegetables. Check out the video.
In conclusion, farming in the near future is going to look way different than what we are used to. The robots are coming and it’s just a matter of time until many of these inventions become cheap and cost effective enough that they become the standard. One thing is certain though, they are going to break, they are going to need repairs and upgrades and they are going to need to be installed, configured, adjusted, operated and of course, sold. That is going to be where the opportunities are moving forward, now it’s up to us to adjust our thinking and realize that there are plenty of opportunities in farming jobs, they are just not the ones we are most familiar with.