Using AI and robotics, smart farm equipment will help farmers produce 70 percent more food by 2050 — to feed an ever-increasing world population.
As the world’s population grows, agriculture faces the challenge of 2 billion more people to feed, global labor shortages for field work and low prices for crops, making farming a tough business.
But agricultural technology — from artificial intelligence (AI) to computer vision to cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) — is transforming agricultural machinery, helping farmers produce more food than ever before.
“I dream of a world in 10 to 20 years where hardly any humans, if any humans, are in the fields anymore,” said Mark Johnson, CEO of Los Alamos, N.M.-based Descartes Labs, a firm that employs AI to analyze satellite imagery.
“That’s going to have a significant global impact. You’re going to see yields go way up, for example, in the developing world. So no longer will it be farmer-led practices — these are going to be robotics-led practices.”
In the developing world, where almost half the population is connected to agriculture in some way, technologies like robotics, IoT and cloud computing are critical to solving issues of hunger and improving standards of living.
Embracing New Ag Tech
Until the introduction of the reaper in the 1800s, small armies of people had to cut and gather cereal crops. Threshers later improved labor by mechanically separating the grain from the chaff. And harvesting combines, which did multiple tasks, accelerated productivity.
Today’s technologies are the descendants in this lineage of agricultural advances.
“It’s impossible to pick out every good kernel of grain by hand or even with machinery,” said Karin Wehlin, CEO of the Swedish company BoMill.
“But with a mix of big data, artificial intelligence and robotics, we can pick out each and every individual grain and sort out the good from the bad.”
BoMill’s TriQ sorter directs grains into narrow channels where computer vision analyzes each grain and separates the bad from the good. The refrigerator-sized device can process 3 tons of wheat per hour.
This could make a big difference in North America where growers lose $4 billion annually in crop waste because of harvest losses, said Wehlin.
“If we could save 50 percent of it, to be conservative, that’s a big number,” she added. “And the application to world hunger is obvious.”
Automation promises to increase the availability of food, improve nutrition and bring down costs for food producers worldwide.
“We’ve got a driverless tractor on order and we’re excited about seeing how it works for us,” said Kip Tom, CEO of Tom Farms in Leesburg, Ind. “The reality is things are moving toward AI and robotics, that’s where a lot of investment is going.”
Tom pointed out that robotics development and adoption in the U.S. is happening first in California and regions that grow produce, but he said it won’t take long for commodity crop producers of corn, wheat and soybeans in the Midwest to embrace the new technology.
Solving Labor Shortages
In the U.S., agricultural businesses are urgently pushing the development of robots to make up for chronic labor shortages. As agricultural regions in Central and South America catch up to North American output, farm laborers in those areas are increasingly staying home to work, creating a labor shortage in the U.S.
While the use of smart farm equipment is still in the early adoption stage, the idea of robots solving worker shortages is old news, according to history professor Paul Conkin, author of A Revolution Down on the Farm.
The shakeout of farm labor in the U.S. already happened over the past century. In 1870, about half the American population worked on farms. Today, less than 2 percent of the U.S. labor force works in agriculture.
While this job loss may seem negative, it spurred the greatest economic boom in human history. Food prices crashed and have remained low. Now, less than 10 percent of the average income is spent on food, said Conkin. That’s considerably less than 17.5 percent spent on food in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“There was dramatic change up to the 1940s when I was a boy growing up on a farm in Tennessee,” said Conkin. “But where it really takes off — and it’s just so incredible that no one could even analyze it while it was happening — is from 1950 to 1970.”
During that 20-year period, the farm workforce was cut in half, yet overall productivity rose by 40 percent. Labor productivity per hour of work rose 2.5 times in non-agricultural industries — on the farm, output increased seven times, said Conkin.
“Today, one person can harvest thousands of acres of wheat [using agricultural technology]. It’s mind boggling to think about where we’ve come from the reaper,” said Conkin.
Increasing Worker Safety
Many U.S. agricultural businesses envision robotics increasing safety on the farm. Picking and processing produce is an arduous process. It requires repetitive motion while holding a blade, bending over to cut the crop.
Taylor Farms in Salinas, Calif. is developing its own automation program, deploying semi-robotic platforms that pick and package Romaine lettuce.
Chris Rotticci, director of automated harvesting equipment at Taylor Farms, said the current design is aimed at increasing productivity and yield in the field, and improving the ergonomics for workers.
“Rather than the heavy labor job of bending over eight to 10 hours a day, they’re riding on a machine,” said Rotticci. “It’s like a mobile factory where they’ve moved into a quality assurance job where they’re selecting, sorting and packing, compared to cutting down on the ground all day.”
Rotticci said the current design of the automated harvesters uses an onboard computer to collect and analyze every square foot of the field.
The harvester uses a water jet system to cut the lettuce. Using computer optics to see the Romaine, the harvester cuts it with a water jet stream. Then a conveyor belt moves the lettuce heads up to the top of the harvester platform for workers to pack. Human hands barely touch the crop because the lettuce is packed in the field in real time and sent immediately to market.
In the future, robotics will replace the people on the platform and driverless harvesters may only have one person onboard to monitor the harvest, Rotticci added.
Precision Pesticide Application
Robots also do dangerous jobs like applying herbicides and pesticides.
“It comes down to what is the highest and best use for robots and this is one area that makes a lot of sense,” said Tom of Tom Farms. “Even though we follow everything to the degree of the law on the label, the reality is we can further limit that exposure for farm workers and consumers.”
As consumer demand rises for high-quality foods using fewer chemicals, robotics offers a way to fulfill it with precision agriculture.
The marriage of farm implements with computer vision and AI results in the capability to spray herbicide narrowly on a weed, according to Jorge Heraud, CEO of Blue River Technology based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
“We can cut the amount of herbicides used by a factor of somewhere between five and 10 times. We can reduce the amount of fertilizer, putting it where it’s needed, next to the plant and only to the plants that need it and the amounts that are needed,” said Heraud.
In a world where herbicide resistance threatens farming, Heraud said about 3 billion pounds of herbicides are now sprayed on a growing list of resistant plants at a cost of $25 billion annually.
Blue River Technology’s robotic sprayers identify plants from a library of profiles and essentially eject, much like an ink jet printer, small amounts of herbicide onto unwanted weeds. The device can also pinpoint the delivery of fertilizer for crops.
“[With robotics], we can even reduce the need for equipment by using it more efficiently and doing more,” he added.
Throughout the history of agricultural tech, productivity is key to economic growth.
“In the last 10 years, global demand has gone up a billion bushels a year, a 40 percent increase in demand and yet we have declining commodity prices because of the productivity of technology,” said Mike Vande Logt, executive vice president and COO of Shoreview, Minn.-based WinField United, which is in the business of seed and crop protection.
As greater efficiencies bring crop prices down, the only way a farmer can keep up is to embrace new technologies to lower the cost of production.
According to Vande Logt, productivity is one of agriculture’s most important metrics, revealing the difference between those farm operations that invest in tech and those that don’t.
“That chasm is going to change the dynamics of where food is grown and what people eat.”