What is the role for agricultural robots in Asia?
The Asian farming industry is dominated by small farms.In fact, there are over 200 million farms in the region. These farms are important; they provide 80% of the region's food and provide the majority of the cash that flows into the poorest rural areas.
Each farm is typically run by a single family, and is about a hectare in size. While technology adoption has typically been slow, the pressures on these farms are the same as the rest of the world, particularly rising labour costs.
At Ambit Robotics we are excited by the potential that ground based robots have in Asia particularly for imaging, weeding and spraying. However, some creative thinking is needed. The same technology that works well in Australia or Europe is not necessarily going to work in Asia.
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Like so many new technologies, the challenge is not building a robot that does the job, but building a business model around the product that delivers value for farmers. Our farmer interviews and product testing suggest that ground based robots are going to need four features; mobility, simplicity, adaptability and service.
Mobility is about an individual robot’s ability to service many farms in a day. Given the average size of the farms is so low, it's critical that one robot can service as many farms as possible. It’s all about spreading out the cost of each unit. Each farmer might only spend $200 to $400 on labour in a cropping season, so it's difficult to make the economics work having one robot on each farm.A robot that can service three or four farms a day has a good chance of delivering value.If it can be carried on a motorbike, it's even more attractive.
Simplicity was right at the top of the list when we spoke to farmers. Many times they have used tractors or grain processors where a simple part has broken, and the machine is out of action for months while they find and buy parts.This is where fragmentation of the industry across so many dispersed farms requires technology developers to get creative. A good standard for any robot is that it can be repaired in the same village workshops as a motorbike or home appliance.
Adaptability is about being flexible to suit a range of different farms. On larger farms planting patterns follow standard tractor tyre footprints. However, in Asia row spacings and widths vary. A robot might be used on a range of crops over a year, and will need to be able to suit a variety of conditions. While this presents a significant challenge for designers, adaptability will allow robot users to build a business model which serves multiple farms.
Service is our final criteria. A robot’s purpose can be either to provide a service such as weeding or spraying, or it can provide insights. An insight driven robot might scout for pests or undertake a fruit count. Even the most basic calculations suggest insights are going to be hard to sell.Because the farms are small, scouting for pests or counting fruit can be done manually as a minimal cost. To really add value, robots are going to need to perform a time consuming task, ideally one that is unsafe or difficult.This doesn’t mean insights aren't going to play an important role. A robot that weeds or spray, and undertakes a fruit count could be just what farmers are looking for.
Each year more and more labourers in rural Asia leave for cities to take up work in construction and manufacturing. Farmers are faced with increasing costs and difficulty in even accessing labour. Robots offer significant value, particularly in row crops such as potato, tomato and chilli. In fact, it's fair to say that robots have a critical role to play in regional food security. We are going to need very capable engineers to deliver mobility, simplicity, adaptability and service.