This is the first blog in a short series about robotics in biology! In this short piece we’ll be focusing on how Agribots are changing the way we farm.
The population is going to rise in the future and we will struggle to meet food demands if we don’t innovate and disrupt the way we grow food. Projections suggest we will have nearly 10 billion people on planet Earth by 2050. According to the World Economic Forum that will create a 60% increase in demand for food. We can’t meet that increase currently and as time goes on we will end up with less arable land due to climate change, soil degradation and urban sprawl. One way that farming can change is with the introduction of automation and smart systems. Agri-bots is the general term given to any robot that is used for agricultural purposes.
The first thing to know is that Agribots come in all different shapes and sizes. They can tailored towards their required function. Some of the best examples of jobs that can be done by robots are planting seeds, pulling up weeds, auto-driving harvesters, aerial and ground drones that monitor fields and robots that pick fruit from trees. Also, modern tractors and combine harvesters can benefit from the same automated driving systems that we are seeing in cars. Agribots can also be involved with farming animals, for example, drones have been used to herd sheep. A company called Lely based in the Netherlands have developed robotic systems for milking and feeding cows (just like in the image to the left).
The obvious and best-selling advantage of Agribots is that they work 24/7 and they don’t get tired or sick. Increased uptake of Agribots for smart farming will reduce the amount of farming jobs available to people but will increase the number of repair and maintenance jobs and some companies, like Dogtooth Technologies, are designing fruit picking Agribots to complement the work that people do. Another advantage of the robots is that they can often perform multiple tasks at once.
For example a company called the Small Robot Company make three different Agribots all capable of two jobs. They call them Tom, Dick and Harry. Tom focuses on constant crop and soil monitoring, whilst Dick can dish out nutrients and weed and finally Harry can perform precision drilling and planting.
Some more advantages of Agribots are that they can reduce a farm’s pesticide use by up to 80%, they are capable of making fewer errors than humans and they can work at higher speeds to process crops. Sensing networks created by large numbers of Agribots working all over a vast farm can provide huge amounts of data to farmers about their crops, providing them with the information that will allow help to plan the best time to harvest and keep their crops healthy.
These agribots are expensive to buy and difficult to make and that means they are still rare at this point. They also require maintenance and are not currently self sufficient with energy and so they will rack up significant energy bills. The technology needs to become more accessible for smaller farms where maintaining a high yield is even more important to the farmer’s livelihood. Climate change is going to make weather more unpredictable and smart systems like agribots could help play a part in minimizing the damage.