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Will Agri-Robotics Replace Human Farmers?

by Sunday Precious
A human using Agri-tech robotics on his farm land

Agri robotics should be viewed as a tool to assist farmers, not replace them. Overall, robots have the potential to improve agricultural sustainability by enhancing efficiency, production, and data-driven decision-making.

Throughout history, physical labour has been the first to be replaced by technology. For instance, during the Industrial Revolution, machines replaced human workers in various industries. Nowadays, robots are quickly becoming an integral part of modern farming, from self-driving tractors to drone-based crop monitoring. However, as robots play an increasingly crucial role in agriculture, many people wonder if they can entirely replace human labour.

According to statistics, the agricultural employment rate has dropped from 40% of the total global workforce to a mere 2% today. So if new machines are increasingly introduced, what will happen to the millions of people currently employed in the agricultural sector today? 

That’s the question this article aims to answer.  We will explore the potential of farm robots to replace human workers and provide some details on the benefits and challenges of Agric robotics in today’s society. 

What are Robotics

Robotics is the study of creating, designing, manufacturing and operating machines called robots that are designed to do complex tasks (Jha et al. 2019). 

The first modern robots were introduced with the development of robotic systems in the 1950s. Since then, robotics has grown immensely, with applications in a variety of fields, including space exploration, medicine, the military, and now agriculture.

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Benefits of Agri-Robotics

Benefits of Agri-tech robotics to humans.
Source: FoodUnfold

The issue of “Will they eventually replace humans” is one that arises in every sector of life as technology advances. Our response is that agri robots are unlikely to entirely replace farmers in the near future, but they can be a helpful tool to support farmers and make agriculture more sustainable. 

Here are four benefits of Agri robotics in Agriculture:

  • Increased Efficiency and Productivity: AI-powered robots can automate many repetitive and labour-intensive tasks, such as planting, weeding, and harvesting, freeing up farmers’ time to focus on other important tasks. 
  • Improved Data-Driven Decision Making: AI-driven robots can analyze vast amounts of data from sensors and other sources to help farmers make better decisions about planting, irrigation, fertilization, and pest control, leading to increased yields, reduced waste, and improved crop quality.
  • More Sustainable Practices: Agri robots can be used to develop and implement more sustainable agricultural practices, such as precision agriculture, which uses targeted inputs to minimize environmental impact. For example, drone systems can apply water and fertilizer only where and when they are needed, conserving resources and reducing pollution. 
  • Enhanced Accuracy and Reduced Risk: Robots can work 24/7 without tiring or getting distracted, allowing farmers to get more done in less time. They are also more accurate than human workers, reducing the risk of error and increasing the yield of crops. Additionally, robots can perform dangerous tasks, such as working with chemicals or handling heavy machinery, without putting human workers at risk. 

Overall, agri-robotics has the potential to make agriculture more sustainable by increasing efficiency, productivity, and data-driven decision-making. However, it is important to remember that robots are just tools, and it is up to humans to use them responsibly.

Robots Stopping Illegal Labour

Agri-tech Robotics being used for harvesting of fruits
Source: Adobe Stock

Agri-robots offer not only agricultural benefits but also social and ethical advantages. In recent decades, farming methods have had to adapt to meet consumer demands for quality produce, reduced pesticides, and sustainable production. While this shift has benefited consumers and the environment, it has come at a cost to workers.

Greenhouses have seen a 5°C temperature increase and 20% more humidity over the last 10 years, creating harsh conditions for workers. Additionally, workers often perform monotonous tasks, leading many to opt for jobs in other fields with similar pay. The ethical imperative to improve working conditions is clear, especially considering issues like human trafficking.

Robots can help set a new standard for the human workforce, improving their working environment. By aiding workers, robots might even help them earn higher salaries, as many primary workers earn bonuses based on harvest volumes and speed. With the added threat of crises like the coronavirus, robots could be the key to maintaining food supply stability.

The benefits of agricultural robotics are clear: labour savings, increased efficiency, high precision, low error margin, and sustainability. However, there are also challenges, including high costs, high energy needs, and maintenance requirements.

Human-Robot Collaboration 

Agritech Robotics used in collaboration with humans.
Source: HDI Global

Farm robots have many benefits, but there are some tasks that they cannot perform as well as humans. For instance, robots may struggle with tasks that require delicate touch or fine motor skills, such as pruning fruit trees. Also, robots may not be able to respond as quickly to unexpected situations as human workers, such as weather events or equipment malfunctions. However, we must bear in mind that robots are not meant to replace human workers. Instead, they are intended to supplement human labour and help farmers become more efficient and productive. By taking over repetitive or dangerous tasks, robots can free up human workers to focus on more complex and rewarding work, such as crop management or developing new farming techniques.

Although AI robots have the potential to play a significant role in the future of agriculture, we must remember that they are not a cure-all. Farmers will still need to play a vital role in managing their operations and making decisions. AI should be viewed as a tool to assist farmers, not replace them.

4 Agri-Robotics Making Waves in the Industry

Some examples of agri-robots making waves in the industry include:

  • Autonomous Tractors: These tractors use GPS and sensors to navigate fields and perform tasks like planting and tilling. Examples include John Deere’s “Autonomous Tractor Concept” and Kubota’s robotic tractor.
  • Agricultural Drones: Equipped with cameras and sensors, these flying robots monitor crop health and identify problem areas. Precision Hawk’s drone is an example, using high-resolution images and AI for analysis.
  • Apple Picking Robots: They reduce manual labour in tedious tasks. Abundant Robotics’ robot is an example designed specifically to pick apples from trees.
  • Weeding Robots: These robots utilize computer vision to identify and target weeds for removal. Blue River Technology’s robot is an example of this technology in action.

Factors That Affect The Adoption of Agri-Robotics In Africa

While agri-robotics is making significant strides in developed countries, the adoption of the technology in Africa is very slow. Here are some reasons: 

  • Lack of Trust and Robustness: Farmers are hesitant to use agricultural robots due to concerns about reliability, downtime, and the inherent complexity of new and sophisticated equipment like robots.
  • Communication and IT Infrastructure: The lack of geographical availability due to the lack of IT infrastructure is a significant challenge. Farms in Africa are typically located in rural areas where the infrastructure is very limited, making it difficult to establish reliable communication systems for agricultural robots.
  • Socioeconomic and Legal Issues: There are socioeconomic and legal issues to consider, such as the potential impact on jobs and the need for regulation and policy-making to ensure that machines replace only jobs that are dangerous or unwanted. Additionally, there are concerns about safety and liability in the event of an accident or wreck involving autonomous ground vehicles.
  • Lack of Cyber Infrastructure and Data Flow: The digital divide in Africa hampers robot effectiveness in rural or remote locations, and there are challenges from both social and technical perspectives.  
  • Financial Barriers: The prices of agricultural robots which typically start at $15,000, pose a significant financial barrier to the adoption of agricultural robots. The upfront investment for robots can be a big financial pressure for farmers, especially in the agricultural industry which has relatively low profit margins.

Conclusion

Farm robots are rapidly becoming an indispensable component of modern agriculture, providing better efficiency, productivity, and safety. While they may not be able to completely replace human workers, they can help farmers get more done in less time and accomplish activities that people would find difficult or risky.

As we continue to develop robotic technology, we must take steps to avoid ending up in an apocalyptic sci-fi world where robots have taken over and killed off humanity. However, we do not live in a fictional world. We live in a world for which we are all responsible, therefore let us work together to construct for the greater good.

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