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Unlocking Agricultural Transformation with Agri-Robotics

by Oyewole Okewole
Robots operating in a greenhouse Agri-robotics in Agriculture- Agritech Digest

Many technological innovations have been deployed over the years to solve challenges in the sustainable production of food and other agricultural products. Agri-robotics is one of such advancements pioneering the progressive transformation in agriculture. These innovations are playing critical roles in addressing the progressive adverse effects of climate change; pests and diseases; increased inefficiencies in food production and increased imbalance in the natural resources.

Food production is facing major threats that not only affect the productivity of farmers but also the availability of food to the ever- increasing global population. The imminent pressure on sustainable food production has produced more food intensification practices, optimisation methods, resilient and adaptation strategies and above all automation of processes. The agricultural industry has embraced technology over the years to meet the growing demand for food and other agricultural products. However, there is still a need to produce 70% more food by year 2050 to feed the projected global population of 9.7 billion.

In the quest of providing the much needed solutions, the agricultural landscape is undergoing profound transformation by technologies like precision agriculture, biotechnology, climate-smart technologies, block-chain technologies and agricultural robotics that have been deployed at various scales to continuously overcome the challenges. Precision agriculture has therefore integrated the use of robots in the operations of food production.

Agricultural Robots

According to a research article by Yaghoubi, et. al, in the 1920s, robotics in agriculture was introduced when research into the advancements in tractors came up and automatic driving was more particular. The research outputs laid the foundation for robots in agriculture. It was further progressively heralded by the development of the automatic farm vehicles in the 1950s. Furthermore, the advancements of computers in the 1980s enabled the use of machine vision to guide the operations of the automatic vehicles. These developments later produced the usage of robots in agriculture along with the utilisation of expert systems and application software that integrate artificial intelligence. More recently, robotics have gained more prominence in agricultural operations largely at the upstream sector of the value chains

The dawn of the 21st century however introduced a new era in the advancement of agricultural technology that integrates robotics, precision agriculture and artificial intelligence (AI).

In agriculture, robots are machines specifically utilised to carry out a complex series of agricultural processes automatically. They are primarily deployed to replace human efforts and energy in achieving assigned tasks more efficiently. In most cases, agricultural robots are positioned to take over many farmers’ duties that are either labour intensive, slow or highly repetitive. Robots in most cases make many of those tasks simpler, faster, more effective and efficient.

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AI Generated Robot
Agri-robotics in Agriculture- Agritech Digest
Source: Freepik

The agricultural robotics market was estimated to be worth USD 3.43 billion in 2019 while also valued at USD5.78 billion in 2021 and projected to reach USD 94.22 billion by 2030 rising at Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 34% from 2023 to 2030 according to Verified Market Research. This is instructive on the giant strides robotics is expected to play globally in the next 6 years across regions and within different value chains.

Utilisation of Agri-Robotics

These solutions from agri-robotics directly influence food production and their productivity levels. They also bring about specialization and environmental sustainability. Agricultural robots have demonstrated the potential to greatly improve food quality. They also exhibit the capabilities to save costs through reduction of expenses, especially labour costs. Robotics also unlocks the increased adoption of vertical farming, aeroponics and hydroponics where automation has become critical in managing these controlled environments. The use of robotics in a controlled environment further reinforces the production of higher yield of food and other products from small areas in urban food systems while effectively using minimal water and chemicals use.

Some of the uses of agri-robotics include:

1. Monitoring and Data Collection Drones: They are used for providing precision agriculture through the analysis of the farmland from the aerial view. They monitor the farmland by mapping the land, monitoring topography and gradients; pest presence; crop health, and provide even more detailed information and insights about crop conditions through advanced imaging technologies.

Drones in Operation
Agri-robotics in Agriculture- Agritech Digest
Source: Azol Life Sciences

2. Spraying of Herbicides and Pesticides: Farm robots that spray also use machine vision cameras to identify the problems and spray the exact plant that needs the herbicides and pesticides without applying to others.

3. Automated Planting and Pruning Management: Just like spraying, the robots undertake planting and pruning management in a precise way by administering specifically required operation to the exact location of application. They achieve all these without the attendant’s human error.

4. Fruit Picking, Packing and Crop Harvesting Robots: Fruit picking and crop harvesting are quite labour intensive. In a situation of shortage of labour the fruits are often left to rot and command a higher rate of wastage. Farm robots saddled with these responsibilities can detect when fruits are ripe and only pick those ones.

5. Greenhouse Production Management: Robotics are increasingly playing significant roles in greenhouses. Computer vision and sensors help robots oversee the growth of the plants while other activities like transportation and other activities are carried out by robots. Their operations generally boast 90-95% less water use and also eliminates the use of chemicals or used at the barest minimum.

Robots operating in green houses
Agri-robotics in Agriculture- Agritech Digest
Source: Adobe

6. Automated Milking Machines: Dairy farm robots make the milking process more efficient by milking cows at the most convenient time since the robots are ever ready at any point in time. The robots use the teat cups to milk the cows through the use of sensors, cameras and lasers to determine the location of the teats.

Automatic Milking Robot
Agri-robotics in Agriculture- Agritech Digest
Source: iStock

7. Feeding: In addition to feeding animals, farm robots also prepare customised feeds and fill themselves to serve the livestock ensuring the precise quantities and water temperatures for drinking.

Their use brings about increased productivity, guaranteed labour, waste reduction, precision and cost effectiveness.

Challenges and Limitations of Agri-Robotics

Agri-robotics has shown some form of challenges and limitations. Chief among the limitations is the initial costs of robotic systems which can be very high for small and medium scale farms. The challenges of energy consumption of robotics coupled with the life cycle environmental impact through the manufacture, utilisation and disposal of equipment like these pose great concerns for its sustainability. Also, the skills development required to operate and maintain the machines are limited which has an implication in its adoption.

However, despite these limitations and constraints, it is crucial that the conscious sustainability plans should be incorporated in its lifecycle (while using environmentally friendly materials of construction for example) for the future prospects of the technologies. Labour displayed could also be reskilled and up-skilled to sufficiently handle other critical farming operations while the use of agri-robotics are preferably seen as a complementary effort and not total replacement.

Impact of Agri-Robotics on Farm Labour

In spite of the prevalence of these robotic technological functions and uses, there has been a debate about their influence on the agricultural workforce especially in rural producing communities. The potential for agricultural robots and automation to displace jobs is high. This will consequently affect the livelihoods of farm labour and displace cultural farming practices. Thus, it becomes an existential threat to the socio-economic lives of rural farming communities.

Focal to the leading role of agri-robotics in transforming agriculture, the future will be a merger between human labour and technology to fully harness the benefits of technology. This can be achieved through robust training and education, policy support, infrastructural development, rural community engagement and providing the required environmental sustainability measures.

Addressing the challenges and proactively administering the required solutions will sufficiently place agri-robotics as an integral part of our food production and opens a whole new vista of opportunities to address the current global food production challenges. Indeed agri-robotics will hold all the aces for agricultural transformation in the near future.

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