Objection #1: Ag Robots are Expensive
A farm, like any business, is beholden to its bottom line. Costs seem to add up quickly: fertilizers, chemical or biorational inputs, tractors. And ag robots certainly don’t come cheap. Many farmers question whether a picking robot that costs upward of $100,000 is worth the capital expenditure.
Technology companies argue that human labor, from work visas and housing to hourly rates and healthcare, don’t come cheap either. But replacing human workers isn’t the only way these companies are working to make their machines affordable.
As the technology becomes widespread, the costs inevitably decrease. According to Jonathan Tilley, author of “Automation, Robotics and the Factory of the Future,” they already have.
“Over the past 30 years, the average robot price has fallen by half in real terms, and even further relative to labor costs,” Tilley writes. “As demand from emerging economies encourages the production of robots to shift to lower-cost regions, they are likely to become cheaper still.”
Ag robots aren’t just cheaper to produce; they’re less expensive at nearly every stage of the developmental process.
“People with the skills required to design, install, operate and maintain robotic production systems are becoming more widely available, too,” Tilley writes.
“Robotics engineers were once rare and expensive specialists. Today, these subjects are widely taught in schools and colleges around the world,” he adds. “Advances in computing power, software-development techniques and networking technologies have made assembling, installing and maintaining robots faster and less costly than before.”
Objection #2: The Technology isn’t Viable
Anyone who’s ever dealt with a malfunctioning laptop knows the frustrations of a subpar machine. These concerns are elevated when a poorly performing robot may result in damaged crops and a direct loss of revenue. Ag robots also tend to be a bit more complex than operating a MacBook. Thankfully, the machines have come a long way.
“There have been some advances in technology in the past seven or eight years that have really enabled this field to come about,” says Dr. Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, IDTechEx Research Director.
He believes that ag robots simply need incremental changes to operate at a level of high performance—most of the heavy lifting has already been achieved. Dr. Ghaffarzadeh also predicts that in the future, technology companies will offer robotic services ranging from weeding to harvesting fresh fruit.
This benefit goes both ways: With more robots operational in the field, companies collect more data that can inform new iterations and improvements. Their onsite experts can also test their robots in real-time, while farming operations pay a fee for the tasks that are accomplished. This leaves human laborers to focus on the agricultural work they do best.
Objection #3: Ag Robots Aren’t an Improvement on Human Labor
Can an ag robot pick a pack of peppers faster than a person? Currently, the answer to this alliterative riddle is “no.”
Even when taking speed out of the equation, robots generally can’t pick produce as gently or thoroughly either. Most ag robots with advanced machine vision technologies still struggle to determine ripeness with the same accuracy as a human.
This dilemma has been well-documented in articles from newsrooms around the world, but there’s a place for ag robots and human laborers on the farm. The key is managing expectations.
“While full automation is often hailed as the ultimate aim in technological development, and the future agriculture systems may look very different from those of today, only very few large companies can afford the disruption of full automation,” states the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems Network’s report titled Agricultural Robotics: The Future of Robotic Agriculture.
“To achieve this long-term vision will require a gradual transition from the current farming practices, and most farmers will need technologies that can be introduced step by step, alongside and within their existing systems.”
Far from the machines taking over, farms will likely relegate ag robots to the back-breaking tasks of weeding field crops and spacing pots in the greenhouse. The humans will manage these robots from their devices, intervening whenever necessary. Ag robots may indeed pick packs of peppers, but operations will feel comfortable knowing there’s a person nearby to pick up the slack.