Somewhere in a strawberry farm in Florida, operations of a robot that can detect ripe berries, pick, and pack them are in a trial stage. It works faster than human hands, with more precision and, obviously, without getting tired.
Such robots have begun to make inroads into other areas of agriculture as well, which has often been considered one of the least technology-reliant sectors. According to the research firm Mordor Intelligence, the market for agriculture automation and mechatronics was worth US$ 3.4 billion in 2018 and could grow at a CAGR of over 24 percent between 2019 and 2024.
Several factors are driving this adoption of agriculture automation. Combined with practices such as indoor farming, robots could help improve crop yield in an environment where the unpredictable climate is becoming a major concern. The shortage of labor is also hurting farmers across the globe.
Agriculture is a segment that includes several different kinds of processes. This means there are several things robots can do here. Here is a look at the five major avenues where autonomous machines are making an impact.
This is the most popular work for robots in agriculture at the moment. While plucking a fruit sounds like a simple action, the whole process of finding fruit, knowing if it is ripe enough to be picked, and then picking it without any damage is far from simple. It requires a combination of advanced machine vision, dexterous robotic fingers, and navigation systems.
The arm that picks the fruit should be tailor-made for the kind of fruit it is meant to pluck. For instance, raspberries need a more delicate touch than apples and oranges, which should be achieved with a proper mix of sensors, linear actuators for agriculture, and gears maintained at optimum configuration
Now, robots are here to carefully go through the field and spray microbursts of herbicide on weeds alone, limiting the environmental impact and improving overall efficiency. Machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) enables these robots to distinguish weeds from crops. Some of these robots even come with a second camera that continuously monitors the impact on the weed once the herbicide is sprayed. For years, farmers have relied on mass spraying of herbicides to remove weeds from their fields. Crops are genetically modified to withstand the herbicides, but the process does take a toll on the environment, while slowly making the weeds tolerant to chemicals.
Similar to harvesting and picking, actions like pruning and thinning require delicate hands that know where to cut. Actions like mowing are a bit more straightforward, which is the reason we are already seeing a lot of effort being made into bringing lawn mowing robots to the market.
Phenotyping refers to the process of assessing a plant’s health by observing its physical appearance. Although it might sound simple, this is a tedious task in large farms where each plant has to be scrutinized individually.
Thankfully, robots are making this easier. With sensors like weather monitors and hyperspectral thermal cameras, these machines can measure the dimensions of plants, which in turn can be fed to a computer that can develop predictive models of growth. This will help farmers understand if a plant requires special attention in advance.
From a farmer’s perspective, this is the final step of production, one that requires careful handling of the product while ensuring proper packing. These may be done in low-temperature environments to ensure the products last longer. Robots are an ideal tool in this segment as unlike people, they can work in any kind of environment.
Prasanth Aby Thomas has written extensively on global security, automation, and smart technologies industries. He is a Senior Journalist and tech reporter and has worked with several publications in India and abroad. He completed a Masters Degree in International Journalism from the University of Bournemouth, Dorset.