The Ag Industry Already Loves Technology
While it may seem surprising that an industry born from hand tools and cattle-drawn plows has embraced technology, that’s exactly what’s happened. From tractors and sprayers to shaking machines and mechanical harvesters, agriculture has become increasingly tech-savvy. Autonomous technologies are simply the next step.
According to Daniel Azevedo of COPA-COGECA, a group that unites European farmers and European agri-cooperatives, robots are already a big part of the farming experience in the EU.
“Agriculture is very clearly devoted to technology,” he says. “I think most people will be surprised how agriculture is using technology now.”
The rise of automation in the farming sector is interesting for a number of reasons, Azevedo notes. Robots and other advancing technologies are poised to help producers deliver on the new policy framework that focuses on innovation, job creation and competitiveness in the world market. They also make it easier for farmers to provide a high level of food security, all while following sustainable practices that maximize welfare and reduce environmental waste.
An abundance of benefits means robots continue to be attractive to many farmers. Few are worried about the impact on jobs because, as Azevedo points out, “it's up to the farmer to decide which technologies he is going to use.”
Robots can also be a means to move the industry forward. Farming is likely to attract new and younger talent to an increasing technology-driven profession with fewer monotonous tasks and shorter workdays. Azevedo says the latter is already happening.
“Robots organize the work of a farmer,” he says, “and we have seen examples of how the robots are actually helping families to have breakfast together in the morning because the work is now more structured.”
If anything, Azevedo explains, it’s society that has shied away from accepting the latest generation of agricultural technologies.
“It brings up an interesting question,” he says. “Why do we accept the use of technologies in all aspects of our life, but when it comes toagriculture, concerns are raised over safety? These are technologies that are being used and are considered safe and have been proven around the world.”
In order to alleviate the public’s concerns, Azevedo continues, robots must prove they can deliver on their promises to improve working conditions, increase profitability, and ultimately, get the job done. Similarly, the biggest key to keeping farmers onboard with the latest innovations is to ensure they actually work as designed. Nothing inhibits adoption rates more than big promises followed by second-rate solutions. If companies build it properly, Azevedo says, farmers will come around.
“I can guarantee that if the robot will deliver and do what the farmer needs, they will learn immediately how to use it,” he says. “I can tell you I've seen farmers that never cared about technology with mobile devices and iPads in their hands because it delivered what they needed, and they are curious.”
Robot Bashing is an Opportunity
Not every farmer, however, is meant to be an early adopter. There will always be people who prefer to employ old-school practices and traditional methodologies.
“I think that robot bashing is not really a problem; it's an opportunity,” says Christophe Bonno of Groupement Les Mousquetaires- Intermarché, a group that works to consolidate production chains and bring together agricultural partners and the distribution network. “It's important to explain our robots can provide safety, confidence, transparency, and a greater possibility to address consumer trends.”
“It's a new opportunity to build up confidence with the consumer,” he continues. “We want to develop green agriculture by reducing the use of chemicals and the carbon footprint for crops treatment. We also want to ensure ground fertility with better water management and more biodiversity. This communication must be our number one priority.”
Robots also offer a persuasive case for improving product traceability and overall quality. When these benefits are articulated to the end consumer, it builds support for what farmers are doing. The consumer-farmer relationship is an essential part of building a society that loves robots.
“The consumer trusts the farmer but not his practices,” Bonno says. “We want to work on building that trust. With robots and new technologies, we will be able to match treatments to crops based on composition. We will be able to develop artificial intelligence which uses computer programs to analyze data.”
Although the full range of benefits are not yet known or understood, Bonno continues, the data can be used to control product traceability and provide critical information to consumers when they need it most.
“We should be able to earn the customer’s trust with all this information,” he says.
Farmers, End Consumers Have High Expectations
Trust is one aspect of building a robot-embracing industry. Meeting expectations is another. When it comes to satisfying farmers and their customers, technology companies have their work cut out for them.
“The use of robots is of no interest to the end consumer,” says Antoine Poupart, Bioline – InVivo, an agricultural cooperative group. “The expectations are around results: What’s on my plate? What’s in my environment? What’s happening in my society? It’s not about the means of production. So, we need to ask, ‘which of the end consumer expectations can be met by robots?’”
This disinterest in robots and their role in agricultural production, however, may be changing. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Ole Green of AGROINTELLI, an agricultural automation company, people are beginning to pay attention. He encountered this heightened awareness recently when talking with end consumers about vegetable and berry production.
“We suddenly have a society looking much more into hygiene factors,” Green says, “so, the fact that you could actually start harvesting your crops without actually having any contact or minimizing your pollution risks that could be an element where automation could really start to support the hygienic factor in our high-value crop farming.”
Value is also an important part of the new agricultural revolution. Farmers are invested in securing market value, while consumers want to purchase products with maximum value. Poupart says that according to the studies and market research he’s seen, there are three pillars of expectations that customers value more than others.
“The first is food quality, which is mainly around safety and nutritional
quality,” he explains. “The second pillar is around environmental impacts, mainly about climate change and biodiversity. The third, which is really increasing in importance, is about welfare and quality of life at work. Those are the pillars of value and customer expectations that we really need to focus on and have robots provide an answer to.”
Since the customer can’t always be on the farm to see robots and other technological solutions in action, the best means of providing value is through information.
“Farmers today have very few tools to provide information to the consumer,” Azevedo says. “We hope that the data will not only be collected by the robots but that the technologies will actually enable us to provide further information to the consumer. It is also extremely important to get information from the consumer, so that we can use it in our farms and adapt our practices accordingly.”
Robots Must Be Reliable, Valuable and User-Friendly
For farmers to effectively meet their customers’ needs, it is essential to know their preferences, desires, and buying habits. This information also helps producers to better define what they require from their robots. Certain baseline capabilities, however, are critical for farmers to begin adding these autonomous technologies into their workflow.
“There's no doubt that when introducing a new technology, the robustness is one of the key factors that we have been met with,” Green says, adding that farmers inquire about how the robots compare to a machine they’ve known for 40-plus years: a tractor.
“Are the robots reliable to do the work because the farmers know that the work has to be done within few days or a few hours when the conditions are good,” he says. “The new technology has to be reliable before this is something that really will have a big impact on the market from an application point of view.”
In addition to reliability, farmers need to know the robots can perform as well as, if not better than human laborers. While autonomous technologies can help farmers reduce the negative impacts of labor shortages, product quality matters. Operations that want to succeed long-term need to continually maximize the marketable yield.
Robots, as Green notes, have the ability to ensure uniform quality in the sellable product. When seasonal workers come and go each year, the farmer must constantly train new people to manage the same processes. If most of the labor isn’t retained from year to year, the quality may suffer.
These seasonal jobs can also be replaced by better-paying, more attractive positions, such as “machinery assistant” or “robot repair specialist.” Changing the job market within agriculture is an example of how robots can be used to create value for the farmer.
“If you are actually able to get some money from your profession, you will be able to employ other people and you will be able to expand your activities,” says Azevedo. “So, I think the conversation needs to go in the direction of, what kind of tasks could be automatized and how can we create value to make sure that the business maintains a profit, is able to deliver, can pay taxes and is able to keep bringing jobs into rural areas? The farmer will make the necessary investment if it delivers a value.”
By automating the repetitive tasks, farms can increase productivity with the same size crew. With the robots managing the grunt work, agriculture professionals have the opportunity to focus on agronomy and other things that require human expertise.
“We are much better to look at variability in the field, soil, animals or plants than spending time in training expensive computer networks,” Green says. “That's where we should spend the time, in visiting the spots in the field to find out why are they not yielding like we would like them to. It is really important that we value the farmer’s understanding of agronomy and business, and then it’s up to us as manufacturers to make sure that the solutions are robust, reliable, and easy-to-use products.”
The case for introducing robots onto the farm is a strong one from the value standpoint, but adapting to new technologies can be daunting, especially for those who have become familiar with the tools already at their disposal. That’s where advanced technology suppliers need to do the prep work to simplify their machines.
“I believe that the farmer shouldn’t need to be a software programmer,” Green says. “If we are in that situation, then we didn’t finish developing the robot interface.”
The majority of farmers, he says, want one or two buttons on their machines. Engineers love technology and developing advanced tools. Farmers crave ease of use. The end solution should give operators the same feeling as getting into a new car, Green says.
“You can get into any new car and know by intuition how to use it, and I think that is what we would like to see with technology in agriculture.”
Tech Companies Must Build Trust Through Responsible Practices and Customer Support
Ideally, the relationship between farmers and robotics companies continues long after the sale. Just as consumers need to be able to trust the farmers that supply their food, farmers need to be able to trust the manufacturers who supply their machines.
“I think trust is one of the big challenges we have right now, and all robotics manufacturers have a huge responsibility,” Green says, “I think that's really where the honesty of the new players on the market has to be true and valid. If we are over selling the technology, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot because the farmers and the consumers won't have the same experience as we are trying to sell it.”
The best way to minimize buyer remorse is to ensure users understand how to operate their robots. Green equates it to selling other common agriculture technologies like autosteer or a sprayer. The onus is on the manufacturer to confirm the customer is armed with the information necessary to effectively use the equipment. Training and support are essential, but Green also views this as an opportunity for manufacturers to set themselves apart.
“There’s no doubt that the competition between robotic manufacturers todays is not only the physical design or the way its constructed. It’s also the usability. It’s whether the user interface is easy to address by someone who didn’t have before. This is, of course, also a competitive parameter for the robotic manufacturers.”
This responsibility to the farmer extends beyond the hardware, too. Although this is an important component, one of the biggest concerns plaguing today’s robotics operators centers on data ownership and security.
“The farmer is in a situation where he is making investments in terms of buying the technology or buying the robot, and it will be the one collecting the data,” Azevedo says. “Data that is collected during farming operations or on the farm should belong to the farmer. He should be the one controlling the access to the data, and that is also to ensure that he gets some of the value that is created by sharing the data. We need to make sure that the farmer is not the only one taking risks and making the Investments.”
While data sharing provides value beyond a single farming operation, Azevedo adds, the farmer will need to be a part of that process. There is already a general mistrust around data usage. Green says that manufacturers have a responsibility here as well.
The farmer must have the power to decide who can use the data collected from a robot on his operation, but that data will be managed through a different system. Green compares the process to selecting a bank. Farmers will need to decide which vendor to trust with their valuables.
Another complication is the sheer amount of data a robot can collect. According to Green, one of AGROINTELLI’s standard robots can produce anywhere between one half and three terabytes of data per day. Not all of what’s collected will be useful.
“I think there’s a big challenge in actually sorting out what is data and what is information,” he says. “That's a huge amount of data and not even a 4G or 5G network will help transmit all these data. So, we really need to have a referral insight into how we make this informative for both the farmers and the end consumer.”
There’s a Lot of Potential and a Lot More Work to Do
Robots have already made their way onto farms across the world. From autonomous weeding prototypes to fully functional feeding robots, the agricultural industry is in the midst of another technological revolution.
“I think one important thing that we've seen in this very strange year is our reliability of workforce,” Green says. “There is shortage of people that can drive our machines up and down the field, and this is the core element where robots can make a difference today. A lot of what we talk about is future perspectives, but robots are on the market today, and they can actually make a difference today.”
This is merely the beginning. The panelists agree that there is a lot more work to be done.
“We need investment,” Poupart says. “We need investment from the EU policy framework. We need investment on broadband, so that farmers have access to and can actually share the data that is provided. We need access to internet infrastructure. We need social funds to support training. There are a lot of new policies that will actually level the playing field to make sure that the farmers can actually choose the technology that best fits their needs.”
Azevedo believes the industry also needs to focus on the next generation of farmers and robotics operators. Those who miss out on early learning opportunities are likely to be left behind.
“We need to prepare the new generations for all the technologies that are available,” he says. “You need to have a good basis for understanding as a kid, then you need to have vocational training and advisory systems that provide support, not only for the robotics but for data processing and how to integrate other related activities. This is extremely important.”
As impressive as the current technologies are today, they’re going to get faster, smarter and more sustainable over time. This generation of robotics most helps farmers complete singular chores, but Green says that artificially intelligent systems are not far behind. The massive amount of data that’s being collected now will transform task-master robots into savvy decision makers, provided the infrastructure can keep up.
“It is extremely important the access to good sources of reliable broadband,” Green says, echoing Poupart’s sentiments. “We want to avoid these gaps between rural areas and urban areas. Rural citizens should have access to the same services and rights as urban citizens. I've seen a number of research projects right now addressing how we can benefit from 5G. I would say if I could just have 3G all over the agricultural domain area in Europe, that would be a good starting point.”
Regardless of the obstacles to mass adoption, the panelists agree this is an exciting time for the ag industry. The future lies in the hands of the next generation. Azevedo encourages them to continue moving things forward.
“The agriculture sector is exciting,” he says. “We have shown resilience during the COVID-19 crisis. We have kept the food security and kept the food coming to the plate. We never stopped working. It is important to talk to your decisionmakers, to the politicians and make sure that they invest in our farms and in sustainability, and that farmers have access to the latest high-tech technology. With access to those technologies, we will be able to deliver.”