Farming with Robots
The word robot can be traced back to 1920 with its first use being in a science fiction play entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots by K. Capek. The robotic technology is developing rapidly and advancing the production capabilities of farmers. Robotics has enabled agricultural systems where little labor is required and technology enables farmers to optimize their land based on the collected data.
There is a need for significantly increased production yields with the ever rising population. UN estimates that the global population will rise from the current figure of 7.3 billion people to 9.7 billion people in 2050. Farmers will be under the pressure to undertake farming that is sustainably productive and ecologically sustaining to keep up with the high demand.
Farm Labor Shortage
Many young people who originate from agricultural regions do not wish to join their parents in the farming business. Many workers who work in the farms are immigrants without proper working papers and these factors contribute to labor shortages in the farms. Farmers respond to this labor shortage by turning to automated harvesting equipment and other advanced technology.
Robotic applications in agriculture
Agricultural robots have led to a huge increase in the production yields for farmers in various ways. They are being used to undertake the slow, repetitive and risky tasks while allowing the farmers to focus on improving overall production yields. Some of the most common robots in agriculture are used for;
- Crop seeding. The traditional method of sowing seeds by scattering them leads to wastage of healthy seeds. Robots can be used in crop seeding where seeds are planted according to the soil fertility which is mapped out by use of geo mapping technology.
- Ovulation alerts which uses sensors to alert a farmer via SMS when the cows are in heat and fit for artificial insemination.
- Head trimming- Lettuce must be thinned as it grows so that the heads do not crowd each other.
- Some of the available robotic harvest machines available in the market are using electronic sensors to push through fields. This has been made possible by the research and development of semi-autonomous cars. Some of the fruits harvested using robotic harvest machines include oranges, apples and grapes.
- Milking robots which include a box that allows cows to be milked when they want to and not when the farmer needs it done. Data about the specific cows is recorded allowing the farmer to monitor their productivity. UR5,a cobot ,can also be incorporated to spray the cow’s udders with disinfectant in preparation for milking.
- Weed control- some farmers are using drones and image analysis technology to discover vegetation and competitive weeds. They can then apply weed killer to the affected regions while keeping an eye on the growth of the crops.
Can robots help mitigate drought?
Many developing countries are hit by drought almost every year due to lack of adequate rain leading to low crop yields. Robots can help mitigate the effects of climate change on the levels of food produced by operating in indoor food production facilities. Pick-and-place cobots could be used in these facilities to ensure that the plants are spaced out as required. Robots can also maintain a drip-irrigation system that is turned on and off at preset intervals.
Challenges of using robots in farming
Robotics will continue to revolutionize agriculture and change the way we think about production but the adoption of robots in agriculture faces a few challenges such as:
- Lack of clear regulations to determine who carries the responsibility for injuries caused by autonomous ground robots.
- Technological developments are required to identify fruits and analyze their degree of ripeness in harsh conditions (presence of dust, extreme temperatures and wind variations.)
- The robotics should be programmed in a way that enables them to detect their surrounding environment and react accordingly to protect humans and wildlife from collision and accidents.