Agriculture may not be the first industry that comes to mind when you think of robotics, but some farms are leading the way in automation. Farmers are not always simple country folk — technology has consistently been at the forefront of the agricultural sector.
This innovation is often the result of necessity. People need food, and as the population expands, so too grows the need for farms to become more efficient. Today, efficiency means automation.
In the past couple of decades, robotics has revolutionized fields from manufacturing to healthcare. Agriculture is no different. Just as machines are saving time and improving quality in factories, robots are helping farmers perform vital jobs with greater efficiency.
Before Tesla introduced its autopilot-enabled cars, farm vehicles were already operating without drivers. The earliest forms of driverless tractors appeared as early as 1958, and GPS-equipped farm vehicles rolled out in the '90s. Since then, farmers have continued to adopt cutting-edge technology to tend to their crops with greater ease and effectiveness.
For the most part, driverless tractors operate along programmed paths or under human supervision. With advances in artificial intelligence (AI), however, that will not be necessary for long. The next wave of self-driving farm vehicles will be able to move and work autonomously. Machine vision technology will also allow them to differentiate between crops.
Driverless tractors will help farmers tend to other parts of their farm while machines plant or harvest their crops. This freedom means that fewer people can maintain larger farms, leading to greater cost-efficiency and cheaper produce.
To ensure a successful harvest, farmers have to monitor and protect their crops carefully. This task can prove to be difficult and time-consuming. Increased automation is helping to accomplish this with relative ease.
Drones can observe crops over vast areas quickly. A bird's-eye view enables these machines to monitor fields at angles previously unavailable to farmers, as well as see more land at a time.
From their vantage point, agricultural drones can serve many vital functions. They can use sprayers to water crops or deploy insecticides. With increased intelligence, these machines could make observations about the needs of specific groups of plants, delivering specialized care to those that need it without wasting resources on those that don't.
While some crops, like grains, don't require a delicate touch to harvest, others, like berries, need careful selection and picking. In the past, jobs requiring this level of gentleness and fine motor skills have been a stumbling block for machines, but they may not be for much longer.Today's robots are more precise and sophisticated. Smart harvesters, such as apple-picking robots, are in production and will likely see more widespread use across the industry. Automating the collection of delicate crops will speed up this process, saving farmers time and money.
Technology is taking agriculture to new places, including inside. Indoors, farmers can use machines to control almost every aspect of the climate, a massive advantage.
Using automatic lights, irrigation and temperature control, indoor farmers can make sure their crops experience continuous ideal weather. They can also use backup generators to avoid power outages, further ensuring the safety of their produce. All of this not only leads to higher quality crops but allows people to keep farming in an increasingly urban world.
When you think of farming, you probably don't think of AI analytics. Nevertheless, the technology has a lot to offer farmers. With speedier data collection and advanced analytics, AI systems can help farmers keep track of everything going on in their farms and provide solutions to problems that arise.
Some experts expect the agricultural AI market to be worth $2.6 billion by 2025, and it's easy to see why. This technology can monitor things like weather, light and soil quality. They can also detect weeds. With this information, farmers can take action to protect their crops before issues get out of hand.
The Top Trends in Agriculture Automation
Like with all other tech trends, the goal of automation is to help farmers, not replace them. Growing crops is a delicate, crucial process, especially considering everyone needs food to survive. With increased automation, farms will become more productive than ever, providing more people with high-quality produce.
Written by Megan R, Nichols
STEM Writer and Freelance Blogger