Science and Tech


Robot Farms Are Here. What Can Farmers Expect?

Drones and artificial intelligence pick crops and plant seeds where human labor is scarce.
Posted at 7:44 PM, Nov 01, 2018

The hills are alive with the sound of robots. On America's farms, a few new terms are popping up: coding, drone, data, GPS, artificial intelligence. Today "the cloud" has no bearing on bumper crops. It's cold, hard computing. In fact, farmers could eventually start their day in front of a computer checking data streaming in from self-guided machines that have been planting or harvesting right through the night.

It’s a huge leap, especially when you consider it wasn't until 1954 that the number of tractors on farms exceeded the number of horses and mules. The move to robotic farming is driven by a few factors: a labor shortage, the rapid evolution of high-tech innovation and by the need to meet intensifying production demands. Here's just a sampling of some robots being tested: 

There's the Harvest Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer. It's still in development but could be in fields of Florida and California in 2019. The goal is to pick a strawberry plant in only eight seconds and cover eight acres in a day. (Experts say one machine could replace 30 hand-pickers.)

Dogtooth Technologies is developing autonomous robots capable of locating and picking ripe fruit — and grading the quality. 

Soft Robotics has developed a gripping system with the dexterity of a human hand and doesn't crush fragile produce. It would help harvesting and food processing operations to automate the supply chain. 

There's also swarm technologyAGCO is fine-tuning small robot fleets that would perform high-precision tasks like corn planting. The robots can work 24 hours a day and even automatically call in a replacement robot if one breaks down.

The Future Farmers of America website sums it all up this way: "Earth's population will be 9.8 billion by 2050, requiring a 60% increase in agricultural production. Rapidly evolving talent, innovation and technical aptitude is required to meet this challenge." 

While some jobs are going away, others will be created. As with any computer, human hands will be programming and operating the machines planting and picking crops. And these techies will need intimate knowledge of how agriculture works. 

The skills needed will range from communication technology to high-tech repairs to data analysis and debugging code. In 1954, mules and horses got replaced by human-driven tractors. Now with robots behind the wheel, humans will yet again shift roles on America’s farms.