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In 2020, the world agricultural robotics market was worth $4.9 billion. It’s expected to grow to $11.9 billion by 2026, according to Markets and Markets.
Drones and milking robots currently dominate the global market. But autonomous tractors aren’t far behind. In fact, by 2023, autonomous tractors are expected to overtake milking robots in the market. By 2024, tractors are expected to surpass drones as well.
Companies like John Deere, after its acquisition of Bear Flag Robotics, and Monarch Tractor are rolling out autonomous tractors. While others like Midnight Robotics, recently acquired by FieldIn, are creating autonomy retrofit kits for existing tractors.
At the end of 2021, the New Zealand Robotics, Automation and Sensing (NZRAS) network released a roadmap to guide the country’s development in robotics. It identified agriculture as one of four sectors with the most room for growth. It also, however, stated farmers’ reluctance to adopt technology would be one of the main challenges for the sector.
Many farmers are optimistic about the role robotics will play in the future of farming. So why are they still hesitant to pour money into robotic solutions?
What’s standing in the way of adoption?
NZRAS said farmers typically don’t like to be the first to adopt a new technology. They’re much more likely to try new technologies if they know someone who has already tried it.
“Everyone wants to adopt autonomous technology but nobody wants to be the guinea pig,” Boaz Bachar, CEO at FieldIn, said.
Farmers typically operate on much thinner margins than a manufacturer or fulfillment center. This means they’re usually less willing to spend money on ventures that might not work out.
However, according to Bachar, farmers are facing more pressure to consider changing the way they operate. The pandemic has shrunk many workforces. Some of Bachar’s customers were missing dozens of workers daily.
“There was a lot of promising in the last five or six years, and not a lot of startups came through,” Bachar said. “But when you’re showing them a product that can affect their day to day, that will increase the bottom line, they’re very open to implementing it.”
Some governments are stepping in to ease the cost of robotics adoption for farmers. In January 2022, the UK announced the latest installment of its Farming Investment Fund focusing on increasing automation on farms. Vermont recently established an incentive program for farmers adopting new technologies. The program receives $3 million in funding annually.
A primary concern for farmers is the reliability of the robots they bring to the farm, according to Antoine Chatelain, an employee at Chatelain Nursery in France, who spoke at the FIRA 2021 Forum.
“Sometimes the robot works great, we don’t see any issues with the work, the robot did its job with great success,” Chatelain said. “But on any moment’s notice, the robot can start going over your crops and can have some issues.”
There are also legal issues when it comes to autonomous tractors. In California, it’s illegal for tractors to operate without a safety driver.
5 robots working the farms
Focusing on day-to-day operations
When considering investing in new technology, farmers typically want to know how it’s going to change their day-to-day operations. A 2021 study from Georg August University of Göttingen in Germany found farmers were open to new technologies, but wanted to understand the concrete advantages before adoption.
But they’re not just interested in what jobs the robot can do, but also in the amount of maintenance it will require.
“One of the things they’re asking is, and maybe this is related to an experience that they had with a startup or in software in general, how many resources will my team need to put in to make it work? Will I need a dedicated person for this?” Bachar said.
Farmers are already running into issues keeping equipment running on their farms. For example, John Deere’s tractors are increasingly complex, and in some cases impossible, for farmers to repair themselves. Software-based locks have made it so they have to take them to John Deere dealerships and service centers for simple repairs they previously could have performed themselves.
More autonomy will only mean more complicated software and hardware. Deere said in 2018 it would make repair tools, software and diagnostics available to the public starting in 2021, but that has yet to happen.
The journey of adoption
“I think that AI and other systems can greatly improve what we can do,” Chatelain said. “I think in the end, we will only be required to do part of the job, and I think this part of the job will be greatly reduced by artificial intelligence and autonomous tractors and other vehicles.”
According to Bachar, mainstream adoption of any robots in agriculture is going to take time. However, there are things roboticists can do to speed up the process.
“It’s a matter of time until we are going to have mixed fleets, and robotics companies need to learn how to work together,” Bachar said. “The end goal is to achieve the farmer’s vision, and he’ll implement different companies for different types of solutions.”
Bachar also recommended making sure growers and robot providers are on the same page.
“It’s a journey, and it’s very important to set expectations with the grower, and to not give them the feeling, unless you can do it technologically, that you will start to release employees very soon,” Bachar said. “Because it will take time.”