With produce and floral growers quickly identifying labor as one of biggest challenges facing the industry today, it is no wonder that small and large farms alike stand to become more productive, efficient and cost-effective than ever before with the use of automation and robotics.
Automation opened the door for robotics in agriculture. Automation is limited when it comes creating knowledge from data, reacting to changes in the environment and performing many operations simultaneously. On the other hand, robots are intelligent, able to learn from their mistakes, and are able to complete complex instructions. Robots and drones represent a $3 billion market in agriculture – and that will balloon to $6 billion as early as 2022, according to Robotics.org and IDTechEx. Wintergreen researchers project that agricultural robots could answer the labor question in the U.S., according to PMA’s Tech Report. Wintergreen lead researcher Susan Eustis estimated agricultural robots will be a $16.3 billion industry by 2020 — a rate of growth 20 times its 2013 size. This innovation is both good and necessary, with an expanding global population that depends on food production doubling by 2045, according to PMA’s 2016 Tech Trends Report. (See the complete report here.)
Over a year ago, a company named Spread opened the world’s first “robot farm” in Japan, with robots carrying out all but one of the tasks needed to grow lettuce. The robots do everything from re-planting young seedlings to watering, trimming and harvesting crops, according to theguardian.com. In fact, The Nomura Research Institute predicted nearly half of all jobs in Japan could be performed by robots by 2035, especially in “non-creative” sectors such as customer service, goods delivery and agriculture.
Today, the same technology behind driverless cars is being leveraged to create driverless tractors and mechanical harvesters, among other agricultural innovations. This innovation and other innovations in robotics and automation are helping farmers in the U.S. who are wrestling with the twin threat of an ever-ebbing labor pool and rising labor costs. Undocumented workers comprise more than half of laborers hired by U.S. produce and floral growers, according to a recent Boston Globe report
Growers are pressured to balance the cost of doing business with the opportunities offered by robotics. The most sophisticated of farmers are proceeding cautiously. They are ever mindful of the razor-thin profit margin and aware that today’s hot new vacuum bot could be tomorrow’s flammable electric skateboard. The cost of adding such technology includes factoring in both the learning curve as well as the cost of maintenance and replacement.
In the wings are a slew of startups, in some cases partnerships between tech companies and growers looking to hit the pavement by improving production methods such as planting, irrigation, labor management and harvesting, among others. One company, California-based FarmBot, deployed an open-source modular precision farming machine that seeds, waters and monitors plants. Strawberry producer Wish Farms deployed an automated strawberry harvester and hopes to lease the equipment to others in the future. A Spain-based company, Agrobot, has its own strawberry picker/packer. Agrobot officials estimate their machine could reduce labor costs by about 50 percent, according to the PMA tech report.
After three straight years of declining U.S. farm income and sources of labor becoming increasingly unreliable and costly, the prospect of using robotics on the farm is becoming more and more attractive for growers to increase their efficiency and productivity, according to Bloomberg.com.