Farming 3.0: Make way for the drones and bots

Innovative technology developed for the military offers promise for agriculture.

Here come the farm bots.

Meet Wall-Ye, a $32,000 robot developed by a Frenchman that prunes vines, removes shoots and monitors plants and soil. A bot developed by Harvest Automation of Boston moves nursery plants around based on digital inputs about locations. The Robotic Rover, a $1 million product under development in Australia, is designed to herd cattle.

Agriculture, one of the world’s oldest occupations, is getting a 21st Century upgrade. Pioneering farmers are using drones and robots to make their operations more productive and efficient.

The worldwide market for farm robots is expected to explode from $3 billion last year to more than $70 billion in a decade, with driverless tractors generating nearly half that amount while less expensive drones will be the most common purchase.

One example is the vineyard of Ryan Kunde in the Sonoma Valley north of San Francisco. Kunde uses a drone, a small multi-bladed aerial device with a camera and GPS device attached, to take high-definition photos close up.

Drone detects problems

“This low-altitude view gives a perspective farmers rarely had before,” said Chris Anderson, founder of DYI Drones.

The drone hovers below 120 yards, the legal altitude, well below the clouds, which enables it to provide unobstructed views. It provides higher resolution images and is much cheaper than satellite imagery, Anderson said.

He said the photos can help farmers such as Kunde detect irrigation or pest problems and could lead to reductions in irrigation and pesticide use, which will have payoffs for costs and for the environment.

“What started as a military technology may end up better known as a green-tech tool,” he said, adding that the cost of a drone has dropped to $1,000, which is the cost of a single hour of traditional aerial surveillance.

Robots more costly

Robots are more costly, but interest in them is building in the agricultural sector and costs should decline, according to a report by Lux Research.

Sara Olson, a Lux Research analyst who authored the report, said costs currently represent a barrier for many farmers. However, Olson said the costs are coming down while human wages are rising and some areas are experiencing labor shortages as their population’s age.

For example, strawberry farms in Japan, where the average agricultural worker is nearly 70 years old, use harvesting robots. In the United States, corn farmers

use tractors and harvesters that steer themselves for more cost-effective operations, the report said

Other products include a drone that sprays pesticides, a drone that can detect the presence of weeds in crop fields, a laser-guided robot that pulls weeds, and a camera-guided cultivator bot.

Experts say widespread adoption of the new technology for agriculture is likely to displace seasonal farm workers while creating more engineering jobs to build and maintain the machinery. However, critics of automation in general warn of displacement of both jobs and cultural practices.

Environmental benefits cited

Like the drones, robots also promise environmental benefits by reducing wasteful pesticide and water use.

Olson said agricultural robots are just part of a broader movement to precision operations in agriculture.

Sensors, drones and software enable growers to use fewer pesticides and use less water, which will “improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture,” she said.

New technologies also will help agricultural research.

Largest robot unveiled

In June, LemnaTech unveiled the largest field robot in the world at the Maricopa Agricultural Center at the University of Arizona.

LemnaTec Field Scanalyzer

LemnaTec Field Scanalyzer

The Field Scanalyzer will continuously monitor crop development as part of a research project to develop genetic improvements that boost crop yields.

The robot travels across a one-acre field and records detailed information about each plant to be uploaded to a database and analyzed. The data includes detailed information about crop physiology and health and plant function and architecture. (Video)

LemnaTec said the technology, developed in the United Kingdom, would reduce the amount of time required to develop new plant varieties and help researchers contribute to long-term food security and sustainability.

The Field Scanalyzer, which will operate around the clock, carries a payload of advanced cameras and sensors that will collect “the most detailed measurements ever recorded for a bioenergy crop,” said Ben Niehaus, chief technology officer at LemnaTec.

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