CROP ROBOTICS 2022, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF DEATH
Are we finally starting to see the adoption of labor-saving robots in agriculture? The short and unfulfilling summary answer is “It depends”. Undeniably, we are seeing clear signs of progress yet, simultaneously, we see clear signs of more progress needed. (Hi-res copy of the landscape.)
Earlier this year, Western Growers Association produced an excellent report that outlined the need for robotics in agriculture. Ongoing labor challenges are, of course, a major driver, but so are rising costs, future demand, climate change impacts, and sustainability, among others. The use of robotics in agricultural production is the next progression of decades of increasing mechanization and automation to enhance crop production. Today’s crop robotics can build upon these preceding solutions and leverage newer technologies like precise navigation, vision and other sensor systems, connectivity and interoperability protocols, deep learning and artificial intelligence to address farmers’ current and future challenges.
So What is a Crop Robot?
We at The Mixing Bowl and Better Food Ventures create various market landscape maps that capture the use of technology in our food system. Our intent in producing these landscapes is to not only represent where a technology’s adoption is today, but, more importantly, where it is heading. So, as we developed this 2022 Crop Robotics Landscape, our frame of reference was to look beyond mechanization and defined automation to more autonomous crop robotics. This focus on “robotics” perhaps created the hardest challenge for us—defining a “Crop Robot”.
According to the definition of the Oxford English Dictionary, “A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer—capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.” Putting agriculture aside for a moment, that definition means that a dishwasher, washing machine, or a thermostat controlling an air conditioner could all be considered robots, not things that evoke “robot” to most people. When asking “What is a Crop Robot” in our interviews for this analysis, the theme of “labor savings” came through strongly. Must a crop robot be a labor reducing tool? This is where our definition of a crop robot started us down the “It depends” path?
- If a machine is only sensing or gathering data, is it saving labor enough to be considering a robot?
- If a machine does not have a fully autonomous mobility system to move around—perhaps just an implement pulled by a standard tractor—is it a robot?
- If a machine is solely an autonomous mobility system not designed for any specific labor-saving agriculture task, is it a robot?
- If the machine is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)/aerial drone, is it a robot? Does the answer change if there are a fleet of drones coordinating amongst themselves the spraying of a field?