Agricultural Robotics, A new feature of Sustainable Agricultural Mechanization?
Digital technologies are currently in every aspect of our life, and agriculture being one of the most advanced sectors technologically, is already in the midst of a fast transformation towards digitalization. The appearance of interconnected sensing systems which can be combined with equipment has been part of agriculture since the last decades of the 20th century. However, the transformation that is envisioned in the coming ones can be a leap not seen before: humans and autonomous equipment will cooperate in the farming works, being efficiency and optimization the paramount that this new farming systems want to achieve.
Unfortunately, at the current stages, this vision is narrowed to one type of farmer, which is the farmer from developing countries, used to do large investments in equipment to be price competitive and able to work in their large farm holds. But as of today, the majority of farmers in the world are not this type, but small-scale farmers, who rely on hand, animal or small engine power to work their farms, usually of smaller sizes than 2 ha.
Then the real challenge would be how to make sure that these small-scale farmers are not left aside in the transformation that is coming and how they can also benefit with the new advances that digitalization can bring to farming. The key is to do it in a sustainable manner, sustainable meaning that is affordable, profitable, adequate and respects the environment by not depleting or endangering resources such as soil and water. It also a common vision that the transition into digital farming means and evolution from the current concept of larger machines that can work in large landholdings being economy of scale the only way to make profitable this investment, into a new concept where fleets or swarms of smaller machines (autonomous or not), more specialized can cover individual tasks in a more efficient way and providing better accuracy. The key issue is not the size of the machine, but its suitability to environmental, social and economic conditions.
Robotics poses one of the possible ways to achieve this transition towards more specialized labour and in an autonomous manner. Robot designs are flexible, scalable and allow the interconnection with other machines, sensors or vehicles. It should be possible to tailor their performance to the farm and land level, adapting to the characteristics of the field where they will work. Why don´t we do this also for small-scale farmers in developing countries?
It is a great challenge, and there are many obstacles on the way, so they were for tratorization of farming in developing countries but today we can see that little engines power farming of entire countries such as Vietnam or Bangladesh. The size of their farms did not hamper the adoption of technology and clearly made a progress for farmers, who quickly adopted machinery to cope with the farm operations and the lack of manpower. This had an effect in the rural industry and soon specialized workshops and dealerships appeared to service and repair the large numbers of engines that were used for water pumping, powering small tractors, seeders, threshers and so on.
Can something similar happen with robotics? The challenge is there as well as the opportunities to create new businesses that will attract youth and specialized manpower to service and operate the new digitalized equipment, while serving small-scale farmers that will require small engines and robots to plant in timely manner, tend their fields and fight pests, weeds or diseases among some of the possible works that robots can do for them (eliminating some of the burdensome tasks they do manually such as seeding or weeding)
This vision however, needs to overcome a series of challenges, being capacity the main one. It is necessary to have the adequate skills and knowledge not to design, but also to operate and understand from the farmers perspective how agricultural robots work. This way, farmers can adapt their farming systems to the benefits that robots may provide, also to understand what can they expect from an autonomous machine and overcome the troubles that incorrect operation may create. But capacity of all the other stake holders is also required, from extension officers to policy makers, so they can contribute to create an enabling environment for their adoption.
Infrastructure seems to be also a big challenge as well, the need of new networks for IT connections, the dependence of the technology on electricity and batteries to power the equipment or adequate hardware and software for their operation can be a burden for the appearance of robotics in the small-scale farming systems.
Other issues, such as data ownership, proper business models, adequacy of the labour, adaptation to the local environment and so forth will add to the complex process that leads to a successful adoption
Currently, agricultural robots are in their early stages, but some indications of their potential are already undeniable. There are many constraints ahead for their full adoption in crop production, not only technical, but also mainly on the socio-economic side, especially related to capacity building and the great need to deeply understand the principles and the technologies involved in agricultural robotics. However, it is possible that their versatility will allow agrobots to perform tasks under conditions that are by nature very labour intensive, thus helping to improve livelihoods of smallholder farmers in developing countries and contribute to sustainable crop production in those most needed regions. This can be an opportunity to increase crop production efficiency, improve agricultural sustainability, and bring innovation and new technologies to areas where it is currently non-existent. It is important to push for an inclusive development of this particular technology and to assure that the new agricultural technologies in the form of automated tools and bots are helping that the overall principles of sustainable intensification of agriculture are further enhanced and promoted.
The author currently works for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Views expressed in this information product are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).