At RoboUniverse in San Diego in December, agricultural robots and the labor shortage were quickly identified as the biggest issues facing the industry today. Water scarcity and field health were other key issues mentioned, but it’s labor that keeps farmers up at night and robotics that could come to their rescue.
Current situation: interim solutions
Labor availability and lack of fully effective automation have pushed some farming businesses to give up growing certain crops.
“We purposefully moved away from crops that require a lot of labor,” said Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing, a Central Valley family farming group. “We now focus on tomatoes, almonds and other crops that can be mechanically harvested.”
However, pushing up the price of his fruit to pay for the increased labor costs is not a long-term solution, as Woolf said:
“I don’t want my commodity to become a luxury item that only a few can afford to eat. The labor issue will not get better, and we’re at a tipping point now, so we need to combine technology and labor to enable us to stay competitive; we can’t keep raising prices, it won’t work in the marketplace.”
Another California fruit farmer, Harold McClarty, president of HMC Farms, said:
“We won’t find a technology that picks fruit the way we do. I have yet to find a robot with an effective, dexterous arm. Instead we are developing certain things that we can use in the packing houses. There are lots of modifications that can be made in the packing houses; they’re a much better and easier place to innovate.”
At RoboUniverse, in a track entitled The Intersection of Technology and Applications in Agriculture coordinated by ag tech startup Food Origins CEO Nathan Dorn, participants were presented with robotics-related technological opportunities from computer vision to AI and from soft and hard gripping to intelligent path planning. There was also a panel where farm managers described their needs and impatience waiting for technology to effectively perform.
[Food Origins is developing sensing technology and analytics that allows it to gather and parse data in new and disruptive ways tracking value from harvest to table, allowing transparency and traceability.]
Dino Giacomazzi of Giacomazzi Dairy Farms said, “Our workforce is either 25 years old or 65 years old. There is no in between right now and that is a problem. The 25-year-old farm hands either don’t like the work or find better work and are gone after payday. I have living animals who need the engagement from good people or good machines.”
In June, The Green Economy quoted Kip Tom, a 7th generation Indiana farmer who heads Tom Farms, an enterprise that encompasses 20,000 acres of corn and soybean across 7 Indiana counties and is also one of Monsanto’s largest seed producers, who said:
“Farmers that don’t learn about these new ag technologies will get left behind. Whether it's information and technology, or equipment technology, there are technologies that will help our industry deliver a sustainable, affordable, and nutritious supply of food to global consumers. It’s exciting, but what is most exciting is when we see collaboration between people in the field, who understand what we need, and developers in places like Silicon Valley and the investment community saying this is something new that we haven’t paid much attention to.”
Brian Antle, of Tanimura & Antle (T&A), built a 600-unit housing facility in Spreckels, California, to house temporary agricultural workers with H2A visas. T&A has also invested in many ag tech startups. Antle said that it was no longer an option to sit on the sidelines and wait for machinery builders to deliver solutions.
“We are all losing opportunities to sell quality products because the lettuce is picked late or we are too short staffed to meet our goals. If we cannot get more people, we must find machines.”
Trends and forecasts
Data generated by sensors or drones and collected by farms on the field or during field operations, offer a wealth of information about soil, seeds, livestock, crops, costs, farm equipment and the use of water and fertilizer. Low-cost Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and advanced analytics are already beginning to help farmers analyze data like weather, temperature, moisture, prices, and communication signals, and provide insights on how to optimize and increase yield, improve farm planning, make smarter decisions about the level of resources needed, and determine when and where to distribute those resources in order to prevent waste and increase yield.
Efficiency and productivity will increase in the next few years as precision agricultural methods become more prevalent and farms become smarter and more connected, but this could just be the precursor to even greater use of robotic technology in farming.
BusinessInsider Intelligence predicts that IoT device installations in the agriculture world will increase from 30 million units in 2015 to 75 million in 2020, for a compound annual growth rate of 20%.
OnFarm, a startup that makes an IoT platform, ran studies and determined that for the average farm, yield rose by 1.75%, energy costs dropped $7 to $13 per acre, and water use for irrigation fell by 8% when IoT devices streamed their data to software that analyzed all the input sources and output meaningful farm management prescriptions.
A new report by Tractica, a Colorado research firm, forecasts that shipments of agricultural robots will increase significantly in the years ahead, rising from 32,000 units in 2016 to 594,000 units annually in 2024, by which time the market is expected to reach $74.1 billion in annual revenue.
Robotics companies are keenly focused on the agricultural market opportunity. The Tractica report examined 178 industry participants – a particularly large number – who are developing and launching robotic systems to address the need for more automation to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and address labor concerns in the agriculture market.
Tractica’s report, “Agricultural Robots”, developed in collaboration with The Robot Report, examines global market trends for agricultural robots and provides 10-year market sizing and forecasts for agricultural robot shipments and revenue during the period from 2015 through 2024. The report examines the market opportunities, barriers, and technology issues for each of the key application markets. Market forecasts are segmented by world region and application type. The study also includes 178 profiles of industry players in the agricultural robot market.