Agriculture has come a long way since humans first started harvesting about 12,000 years ago, but we are now at a turning point. And with a global population projection of 9.7 billion people by 2050, agricultural production will need to increase by at least 70 percent from current levels to serve nutritional trends. Now more than ever, the pressure on farmers to produce nutritious products is putting our planet’s health under even more stress.

New advancements in technologies ranging from robotics and drones to computer vision software have completely transformed modern agriculture. Farmers now have access to tools that will help them meet the demands of our world’s ever-increasing population.

A report by the California Department of Food and Agriculture found that more and more farmers are adopting automation to bridge the growing labor gap and ensuring their crops are picked in time.

“One of the main aims of the report was to take a comprehensive look at the entire harvest ecosystem and provide a quantitative look to the Western Growers membership at how much harvest innovation is impacting their operations across fresh products for specialty crops, where the most progress is occurring, and why,” says Western Growers Vice President of Innovation Walt Duflock. “Second, we wanted to provide an in-depth view of the innovators who are doing the heavy lifting by crop type, so growers would know who to contact based on the crops they grow.”

Among the findings of the report were:

  • 65 percent of participating growers have invested in automation over the past three years
  • The average annual spend on automation was $350,000-$400,000 per grower
  • Spending occurred in pre-harvest and harvest assist activities, including wedding, thinning, harvesting platforms and autonomous ground vehicles. It is anticipated that 30-60 percent of these activities will be automated by 2025.
  • Harvest automation itself remains limited because of the technical difficulties in replicating the human hand to harvest delicate crops. It is anticipated that 20 percent of harvest activities will be automated by 2025.

The following are examples of technologies being used in farm automation:

Harvest Automation
Harvesting fruits and vegetables have always proven to be a difficult problem to automate. Harvest robots must be gentle with the produce to avoid bruising and damage. Agrobot has successfully developed the first robot for gently harvesting strawberries, no matter where and how they are grown. From a flexible mobile platform, up to 24 robotics manipulators work together to pick the fruit which meets the farmer’s quality standard.

Another company, Abundant Robotics, is the world’s first commercial robotic apple harvest. Their machines handle fragile fruits by using a vacuum instead of any claw or hand-like graspers to pull apples from the branch.

Autonomous Tractors
Autonomous tractors can be controlled remotely or even pre-programmed to give full autonomy to a producer. Rabbit Tractor’s autonomous tractor delivers value to row crop farmers not just through a reduction in labor costs, but through increased efficiency across operations and increased yield. Tractor automation kits are even being developed by Bear Flag Robotics that makes automation more accessible for farmers by affordably retrofitting existing tractors with cutting edge driverless technology and implementing control.

Seeding and Weeding
Robotics developed for seeding and weeding can target specific crop areas. In seeding, this can easily reduce labor and mundane tasks on the farm. Weeding robotics can be incredibly accurate and reduce pesticide usage by 90 percent with computer vision. Blue River Technology employs computer vision and robotics technologies to precisely spray herbicides only where needed and with exactly what’s needed. This gives farmers a new way to control and prevent herbicide-resistant weeds. ecoRobotix is another company that produces a weeding robot. This is the first ever completely autonomous machine for a more ecological and economical weeding of row crows, meadows and intercropping cultures.

Drones can be used to monitor conditions remotely and even apply fertilizers, pesticides, and other treatments from above. They can also quickly and cost-effectively identify problem areas with imagery and infrared analysis to help farmers diagnose issues early on. American Robotics is developing a fully autonomous “Robot-as-a-service” with an autonomous drone, base station, and analytics platform that provides insights to growers at resolutions, frequencies, and speeds never before possible.

Farm automation practices can make agriculture more profitable while also reducing the ecological footprint of farming at the same time. Site-specific application software can reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizer used while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

We are only at the early stages of farm automation technology, but it will be able to transform agriculture. It offers a path towards sustainable and more efficient agriculture by advancements of technologies, production systems and software. Every year, automation technology becomes more sophisticated, and what was cutting-edge just a few years ago will become commonplace and cost-effective soon. The human element will always be a fundamental aspect of managing a farm, but fully autonomous vehicles and farm equipment are coming.