Updated: Jun 24, 2020
Implications and potential cons of using Autonomous Systems in Ag
As a grower, you fully comprehend the amount of labor and hard work it takes to daily manage a fully functional farm or orchard. You might also relate to the fact that it has become increasingly hard to find dependable employees given the high demand for farm and orchard workers.
According to a 2019 California Farm Bureau survey of 1,071 farmers from the country's leading agriculture state, 70 percent indicated they had struggled to find enough workers in previous years. According to the same survey, 56 percent have decided to implement or increase mechanization due to these labor shortages, while others have decided to raise wages (not feasible for all growers) or completely change cultivation practices.
Below we discuss various types of autonomous systems available, along with the pros and cons of each as a means of compensating for increased labor shortages:
Harvesting fruits and vegetables has always been one of the primary intended uses by innovators for automated systems in agriculture. Machines that automatically pick fruits and vegetables are of tremendous value to growers lacking labor power. Many autonomous harvesting machines use claws or vacuums designed to handle produce with care to avoid damage. Innov8.ag enjoys following research on harvest automation and robotics, particularly in orchards and vineyards, by WSU's Dr Manoj Karkee.
Autonomous tractors can be controlled remotely or even pre-programmed with geographical coordinates to give growers full remote automation control. Most advances in autonomous tractors have benefited field and wheat growers, but they have also been used for chemical spraying and damage control in permanent crops. ZTractor is one innovative company beginning to roll out electric autonomous tractors. We're excited to see what's coming next in this category!
Increasingly, we're seeing systems that can "bolt on" to existing equipment to modernize and enable new efficiencies. innov8.ag is collaborating in this space with the team that delivered the Smart-Apply® Intelligent Spray Control System™ add-on for airblast sprayers in orchards and vineyards. The system enables growers to program sprayers to apply chemicals at variable rates based on Lidar (a method for measuring distances by illuminating targets with laser light and measuring the reflection with a sensor) and imaging that allows determination of the height, width, and volume of each tree or plant.
Seeding and Weeding
Through the use of seeding and weeding machines, growers are now capable of accurately targeting specific sections of their crops. According to a Precision Agriculture study, mechanical and thermal imagery has been used to successfully destroy 90 percent of targeted weeds while reducing 50 percent of pesticides used.
Advantages of autonomous systems include not having to worry about workers taking sick days or holidays off, which leads to lower production. Theoretically, autonomous systems can operate 24/7, thereby increasing productivity. Advanced technology and AI allow these systems to be more precise and consistent than human workers. Resulting growth in production leads to greater profit margins regardless of weather or environmental changes.
Accuracy is another advantage. Autonomous systems use robotic cameras and sensors to accurately detect weeds, diseases, pests, and other stressed areas. They're also used to selectively apply chemicals only to affected areas, reducing the use of pesticides, preserving the environment, and saving money.
Advanced technology comes at a cost, but return on investment can largely be recouped through reduced labor costs.
Technology also takes time to develop. Many autonomous systems are still in various stages of development and not without their limitations. However, as with any new and improved type of farming equipment, autonomous systems are investments worth consideration by growers.
Reliability can also be a challenge. All equipment costs time and money to maintain and eventually breaks down. It may be awhile before autonomous systems are feasible options for smaller farms with more limited budgets and resources.
Lastly, use of "robots" ultimately changes the culture and reduces the emotional appeal of the agriculture industry generally. This is one of the deepest concerns among growers across the country when faced with labor shortages. Because of the investment required, growers recognize that increased use of autonomous systems is not something that will be turned back when labor shortages are no longer an issue.
With the use of autonomous systems come both benefits and challenges with regard to power and connectivity. Those who live and grow in rural areas are especially sensitive to the challenges. We'll address additional challenges and offer more solutions in upcoming posts.
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