America’s agriculture industry is facing a labor crisis. In California, the country’s top agriculture state, more than 40% of farmers in the past five years have been unable to find enough workers to support production.
Technology, however, may be coming to the rescue. Many farmers across the country and globe are increasingly relying on precision agriculture practices to help them produce more with fewer resources. They’re also turning to autonomous farming robots to keep their farms producing.
This might have been unthinkable even at the dawn of the 21st century, but recent advances in a variety of autonomous farming technologies, including robots, tractors, and machine learning, have made this possible.
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The use of autonomous robots and drones has emerged as a major trend in agriculture. They are used for applications ranging from nursery farming and seeding, fertilizing, irrigation, weeding, pruning, picking, harvesting, sorting, and packing. One robot offering can even handle crop monitoring and phenotyping, providing data that agronomists can use to breed even better crops.
Drones, meanwhile, can be outfitted with special cameras that help monitor crop stress, plant growth, and predict yields. Others can be outfitted to carry and deliver herbicides, fertilizer, and water.
Beyond simply helping farmers deal with their industry’s labor shortage, these robots offer a variety of advantages. They can reduce a farm’s use of pesticides, for instance. They can operate 24 hours a day, and protect humans from engaging in dull, repetitive, and sometimes dangerous tasks.
As the world’s population approaches 10 billion people by 2050, according to United Nations estimates, autonomous farming will play a vital role in helping farmers improve their production yields.
While the tasks robots complete are often dull and repetitive, they are not without engineering challenges. Take harvesting and picking, for instance. As explained in a 2017 article in Control Engineering, a harvesting robot must overcome many obstacles. For example, the vision system that determines the location and ripeness of produce sometimes operates in dusty, low-light conditions. In addition, the robotic arm must navigate obstacles, being both flexible enough and accurate enough so it does not damage the product as it is being picked.
Related, emerging technology is autonomous farming vehicles. These are engineered to operate with full autonomy, that is, without a driver or any form of direct human control. Such equipment is becoming available for mowing, plowing, planting, weeding, spraying, and harvesting crops. Machines use sensors based on LiDAR, radar, and digital video.
The Canadian start-up DOT has introduced its Power Platform, a diesel-powered, 20-foot-long chassis that is fully autonomous, relying on GPS coordinates to navigate an operator’s pre-programmed routes. The platform can be easily and quickly fitted with commercially available implements, currently including a 30-foot SeedMaster drill, a 120-foot Pattison Connect sprayer, or a SeedMaster grain cart. The company promotes a 20% savings on-farm fuel, labor, and equipment capital costs, and predicts more than 100 farm implements eventually will be compatible with the platform.
Meanwhile, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) John Deere recently introduced a concept for its newest, electric, zero-emissions autonomous tractor, with an electric power output of 500 kilowatts (approximately 670 horsepower). The company bills it as the “future of farming.”
Autonomous technology seems to make the most sense in the U.S., where 41% of farmland is larger than 19 acres, and 25% is larger than 3,000 acres. However, the trend is growing worldwide. A September 2020 report by Research and Markets projects the global market for autonomous farming equipment will reach $128 billion (USD) by 2025, driven by advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.
The growing demand for food across the world comes at a time when farmers are challenged to find labor. And that is helping prompt an autonomous farming revolution, as robots and automated machines are increasingly being put to work in fields and nurseries, freeing farmers to focus on improving yields.
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This article was contributed by Pneumatics Team.
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