Agricultural robots in the Covid-19 crisis
Our presentation is aimed at both professionals and non-professionals of agricultural robots, and in the first part, we intend to show where we stand and answer the question "which robots for which purposes?” We would like this overview to provide a forum for discussions between specialists, including suppliers of agricultural robots, and non-specialists who are potential robot users or simply curious to observe the most advanced techniques of artificial intelligence, image analysis, etc. used in agriculture.
However, in agriculture as everywhere else, the profitability of the tools offered is always a subject that is carefully thought about. Agricultural robots can replace the workforce and that is why they sparked considerable interest at the time of confinement when the sector suffered from labor shortage. In a second part, we will see how farmers have sought to overcome the lack of labor by trying to recruit staff over the Internet with rather mitigated results. What emerges from this experience following the Covid-19 crisis, is the feeling that it will be necessary to use robots in one way or another especially if the borders close and it becomes difficult or even impossible to call on immigrant workforce. But the development of robots also meets new needs, such as the necessity to assess the growth and health of plants and animals, the quality of products, the necessity to find alternatives to plant protection products or to reduce their consumption, in particular for weeding.
In a third part, we will discuss the efforts made in Europe to first test and then publicize the robots entering the market. In Germany the DLG (Deutsche Landwirtschafts-Gesellschaft) with its "Feldtagen", virtual in 2020, offers interesting demonstrations. In the Netherlands, the WUR (Wageningen University & Research) is also doing a good job of test and demonstration activity, as part of the many European R&D projects that this university of excellence is receiving. In France, Arvalis launched its "Digifarm" project, the Digifermes, with the same objectives. These Digiferms® of Arvalis are the showcases of digital agriculture (including robots, sensors, and connected objects) in field crops and mixed farming, implementing in full-scale new tools for observing and managing pastures and herds regarding mixed farming, and mechanical weeding robots, and pest detection tools regarding field crops.
Finally, it is useful to contextualize the advent of agricultural robots and to recall how the mechanization of agriculture has been carried out since the 1820s, videlicet for two centuries that have seen a succession of changes in Agriculture, literally feeding a human population that has continued to grow.
In conclusion, we hope that the virtual FIRA 2020 will be a success, and that the players in agricultural robotics will be able to promote their robots, which must be efficient, safe, inexpensive (of course), and "connected" to the digital tools of farmers.
NB: " COVID-19 and agriculture : An opportunity for agricultural and food transition? " is a book produced by the French Academy of Agriculture, with a chapter on digital and agricultural robots. This book is available since September 23, 2020 and can be ordered now.