The automation of agriculture is upon us. There are already dozens of robots churning around the countryside–chopping, weeding, digging, and pot-moving–and, in the future, there’ll likely be many more. Dozens of companies are working automated farm machines that reduce costs, extend harvesting periods, and improve safety, or so they say. Here are some projects we came across (see more here).
Minnesota-based Autonomous Tractor Corporation is developing an all-purpose vehicle that works independently, allowing farmers to go off and do something else at the same time. The “Spirit” comes with 23 navigation sensors, including GPS, sonar and radar, and communicates with its owner using Wi-Fi, cell, or Bluetooth. The first product, due in 2016, will come with six electric mowing heads.
“[Mowing] is by far the most tractor hours per acre of any crop, because you have to do three passes every time you mow,” says ATC’s CEO Kraig Schulz. “This will take a lot of labor out and you’ll be able to perform when you want.”
That could even be in the middle of the night, when most people don’t want to work.
ATC is currently field-testing, ahead of customer beta trials next year. The tractor has no driver cab and is programmed to go up and down a field, stopping only if an obstacle is in the way (at which point it will alert the owner, who can either restart the route remotely or shut it down, pending human inspection).
Schulz bats back the idea that driverless tractors could be risky. “Honestly, this tractor will be safer than [traditional] tractors,” he says. “[Mowing is] a dangerous job and taking the driver out in many ways reduces the risk of accidents and problems.”
The Wall-Ye, developed by French inventor Christophe Millot, is designed to move up and down vineyards. It prunes, ties canes, and takes out unwanted shoots and buds–all without human help. Millot told Wine Spectator he created the 24-inch-wide robot after hearing how French wine growers couldn’t find staff in August. Wall-Ye costs $24,000, but it never goes on vacation.
Autonomous Solutions, in Utah, retrofits farming equipment to be remote-controlled or autonomous. That includes “skid steer” earth-movers and all sorts of tractors. “We’ve automated all sizes of tractors but currently our biggest demand is for the small utility and skid steer platforms and the largest four wheel drive tractors,” says CEO Mel Torrie. Its kits include lasers, radars, GPS, and cameras for navigation, and software allowing farmers to set routes and receive alerts when a vehicle needs refueling.
These days, most farmers don’t bother with weeding. They use chemicals instead, which pollute the environment and add to input costs. Ecorobotix‘s solution: an automated weeder. “Our idea is to go back to mechanical weeding by replacing human labor with robots,” says co-founder Aurélien Demaurex. “The innovation is to deploy herds of compact, dedicated robots that will autonomously and relentlessly detect and destroy weeds.”
The Swiss startup is currently on the third version of its prototype (a more advanced version of the machine in the pictures apparently). “Potentially, it could work for months without assistance. The farmer can control it remotely with a smartphone or tablet, but there is no need to have someone nearby to supervise it,” adds Demaurex.
Meanwhile, there are other agri-robots like this robot harvester from California, this grafting machine from South Korea, and these overhead drones. And these nursery plant pot movers that we covered previously.
Do all these machines look like they’re about to take over the farm? Maybe not yet. Some of them aren’t fully autonomous, and they’re certainly not widespread. But they could make economic sense, as farmers continue to suffer labor shortages, particularly during busy periods. (A survey by the California Farm Bureau Federation found that 71% of farmers in that state had too few workers.)
Of course, if us consumers were prepared to pay more for fruit, vegetables, and wine that might stop the robots in their tracks. But that doesn’t seem likely.