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Investing in Agricultural Robots

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted July 19, 2013

Agricultural robots are making a push to become a daily part of the agricultural landscape, yet there is still a long road to hoe.

Much of the efforts being made are centralized around the design of robots that address agricultural mechanization, not processing. This is because many of the fruits and vegetables destined for fresh markets are sensitive to bruising.

The U.S. agricultural climate is leading the way, but China is also projecting major expansion efforts in its agricultural machinery sector. In the coming years, it is expected to average growth of 18.1 percent, according to Novus Light. Under its 12th Five-Year Plan and government stated objectives, agricultural mechanization will rise 52 percent in 2012, 60 percent in 2015, 70 percent in 2020, and 82 percent by 2030.

If this happens, it will be the second fastest growing segment in Chinese machinery, falling only behind industrial robotics. Other aspects of machinery aren’t expected to see nearly the amount of growth.

If the U.S. and China can prove success of their own merit it will liberate efforts throughout the world and maximize agricultural efforts for a growing world population.

For Farmers

Research efforts into agricultural mechanization have hardly seen the light of day for years now, even as technology has grown, and that’s because for the longest time there was an over-abundance of labor and farmworker unions heavily scrutinized and put pressure on every notion of introducing such a thing like a robot to do the work of humans.

But more recently, the labor supply isn’t as strong as it once was and farmers are facing ever increasing competition from other nations. Now, production efforts need to pay close attention to that almighty dollar, so it has forced farmers to seek out the most efficient and economic production methods.

The robot offers the farmer a reduction in labor costs and supplements, at least in the American agriculture industry, the lack of a strong workforce. And with a growing support system from the federal government and venture capitalists, funding is easier than ever before.

If the U.S. workforce was still strong, the likelihood that we’d even be talking about agricultural robotics would probably still be unlikely, but alas, that is not the case. People don’t want to work in the fields anymore, and there is absolutely no doubt that efficiency needs to be improved upon.

In this case, it’s not that the robot is taking jobs from humans, but rather, it’s making up for a shortage of them.

Commercially available robots still have a long way to go, but could potentially revolutionize the agricultural industry.

The problem is: humans possess certain skills that are hard to replicate. The hand-eye coordination of a human being is amazing, and they have the ability to pick crops extremely fast. Building a machine that is comparable is no easy feat, and even if it was, it is still not economically feasible.

But efforts are being made to make that possible. Initially, robots could work to alleviate the shortage of labor. They are being designed to handle delicate crops using sensors, computers, electronics, hardware and algorithms, all in a network led by high precision GPS technology.

Still many farmworker advocates argue that it will steal jobs away, pesticide use would increase and the food supply would become less safe.

The Companies

One Silicon Valley startup has been making strides lately by introducing the concept of a lettuce robot. The Lettuce Bot as it’s called is designed by Blue River Technology, and has the ability to thin a field of lettuce in the time it takes for 20 workers to do the same job. Thinning lettuce is the process of removing excess plants, giving more space so other lettuce heads can grow fuller with a higher yield.

The Lettuce Bot uses video cameras and visual recognition software to identify heads of lettuce that are weak and/or are becoming a nuisance. Once the bad lettuce is identified it is sprayed with a concentrated fertilizer that kills the lettuce and enriches the soil.

It is already being tested in some California fields. The next step is to start an operating service that would charge by the acre. This would allow farmers to experience the robot’s advantages without taking a lot of risk.

Blue River has already raised about $3 million in venture capital and is in developmental stages that would allow farmers to automate weeding and harvesting.

Agrobot is another company that is working with California strawberry farmers to harvest their crops. It is equipped with 24 arms led by an optical sensor that allows the robot to choose each piece of fruit based on color, quality and size. Once chosen, they are plucked and placed on a conveyor belt, where the fruit is then packed by a worker.

Agrobot’s strawberry robot works great in theory, but it has its share of problems: it can only collect strawberries that hang on the side of beds, which means strawberry fields would have to be reshaped to work with the machine, including single rows of fruit and in less clusters.

It has a long way to go.

And Vision Robotics, based out of San Diego is also developing a lettuce thinner as well as a grape pruner. The grapes would be photographed to create 3-D imaging of the vines, from which it would be decided how to harvest the fruit using a robotic pruner.

But clearly, through all these efforts there is still a lot of work to be done, but you can see some of these robots being employed today, especially in California.

Fresh fruit still remains the biggest challenge to these robots and their developers. It is hard to distinguish the color and feel of ripe fruit, and the robot has trouble differentiating between leaves and branches. But still, the hardest part to duplicate is the speed and precision of the human farmworker.

For now, while many steps are being taken to improve agricultural robotics, the time that we will see them used in large scale operations is still far away. I’d say 10 years before we see these robots operating with any real commercial success.