Some Western countries have now started using robots on the farms – in place of human labour. That is what technology is doing. The University of Sydney as show in the video here has already tested some.
But the question in Africa is: will such technology be part of our farming future.
With aging workforce and desire to improve efficiency, the move is helping reduce labour concerns. Pundits are saying that the advent of robots and new technology in agriculture will revolutionise the way we look at farming.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again,” said Dan Harburg, of the Dutch agriculture tech venture capital firm Anterra Capital, in a recent interview with AgFunderNews. “But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment.”
While there are several areas that companies and startups can invest into, the major areas can be broken up into three main categories: seeding and weeding, harvesting, and environmental control. Each category covers major areas of agriculture that would benefit from the introduction of robotic systems and advances in technology.
For instance, spraying and weeding robots will help farmers two-fold. First, they reduce the amount of labour needed by eliminating a mundane task from their list of daily operations. Second, they reduce the amount of pesticides that need to be sprayed by precise targeting of crops. Farmers save on product cost while producing healthier, safer crops.
At the moment, different tech companies have developed technology for spray robotics. For instance, Blue River Technology is a farm robotics start-up that was recently acquired by John Deere, primarily due to its spray and weeding robots. Blue River claims that its robots can reduce agrochemical use by 90%. Its tractors have a speed of 6 to 8 mph and can cover 8 to 12 rows of crops simultaneously. The tractor uses advanced vision systems to see the crops as it passes above them to provide direct targeting.
Naio Technologies is a French robotic company that uses laser and camera guidance to autonomously navigate between rows of fruits and vegetables. It can recognize different types of plants to identify weeds. Its robot, Oz, runs on four electric engines and works autonomously for three hours before recharge. In autonomous mode, it follows the crop rows of the plot and weeds all without human supervision.
For planting seeds, companies like PlantTape from Spain have developed a plant-transplanting robot that offers a fully integrated system of sowing the tape, germination, and nursery care. This offers a higher efficiency compared to conventional transplanting methods. The process involves creating trays of tape that holds the soil and seeds. Each tray holds up to 900 plants. Then the automated robot tractor pulls the tape from the tray, cuts the tape around each plant, and places the plant accurately in the soil. PlantTape can be used on lettuces, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, onions, and tomatoes.
Automation for harvesting crops is nothing new. However, specialty crops like nuts, fruits, and vegetables have yet to benefit from automation technology. Part of the problem is that the crops very in size, height, and colour. They also are more delicate and require light pressure and touch for picking. Automation systems also need to be able to assess and package crops by size and quality instantly.
Abundant Robotics is one of the few companies that has tried to tackle this space. It has developed an apple-picking robot that can safely pick apples of different sizes. The robot uses computer vision to pick the apples. The apple is accurately pinpointed and a vacuum robotic arm takes it off the tree limb.
Controlled Environment Agriculture
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is the most likely area to benefit from automation and robots, and it’s also the easiest to convert. The factors that make harvests more predictable are replicating the services provided by nature into repetitive and less complicated automated tasks.
Tortuga AgTech uses robots in its CEA areas for horticulture productions. The company is using advanced robotics, computer vision, automation, and machine learning to tackle production problems like increased scale agriculture and labor shortages. The crops are grown in internally controlled climates and automated systems do the picking, packing, and trimming. This results in increased yields through denser layouts and optimized grow conditions.