Agriculture is an essential sector and will remain so as long as humans need food. However, like many other labour-intensive manual industries, it struggles with an ongoing labor shortage. Autonomous machines can help.
Many agricultural workers are approaching retirement, with average age of 59.4 years among the main farmers. Farmers under 35 make up only 9% of the workforce, leaving few to replace the current generation. As human workers become increasingly difficult to attract and retain, farms are turning to machines.
Here’s a look at some of the self-driving machines that are helping farmers alleviate this labor shortage.
Tractors are a essential farm equipment, making it a natural candidate for automation. Automated versions of these machines work much like driverless cars, but are more viable than autonomous vehicles on public roads. Relatively easy and repetitive routes and no other traffic make it easy to implement autoguiding technologies.
Earlier this year, John Deere unveiled a range of fully autonomous tractors, slated for release later in 2022. These tools use six cameras and computer vision to navigate, with real-time data sharing allowing farmers to monitor and control them remotely. In addition to navigating autonomously, robotic tractors can plow, plant seeds, spray produce and harvest without human intervention.
Tractors are far from the only agricultural vehicles with autonomous upgrades today. Self-guided drones can fly over fields to analyze crop health or soil conditions, helping farmers make more informed decisions. Automated mobile sprayers traverse the field and spray individual crops as needed, reducing labor while minimizing chemical use.
Other options take a less specialized and more versatile approach. Skid steer loaders, which are compatible with a wide range of accessories, are an ideal use case for automation. Farmers can equip the skid steer loaders with various sets of tools depending on the current situation, meeting multiple needs with one machine.
Highly specialized self-contained equipment is great for precision farming, but not always an option for small farmers. Many farms operate with low profit margins, which makes more versatile choices more appealing.
Harvesting crops can be a delicate operation, making it unsuitable for automation for many years. Despite this challenge, recent advancements have made this option entirely viable, helping to streamline some of the most inefficient farm processes. For example, automated harvesters can now use sensors to adjust rotor speedsbalancing speed and smoothness in real time.
Robotic solutions can now help harvest even the most sensitive produce. These machines use vacuum suction or cushioned low-pressure grippers to pick fruit from trees and vines without damaging them. Some options also include sensors to detect which vegetables are ready to harvest and which need more time.
Weeding is another historically slow process that autonomous machines can now speed up. Traditionally, this takes time as workers have to scour the fields for weeds and then manually pull or poison them, being careful not to damage the crops. This type of repetitive and sensitive work is ideal for automation, which can often accomplish it faster.
Today’s agricultural robots have a wide range of different weeding technologies. Some use brushes and tools to choke or pull weeds, while others apply specialist herbicides and others zap unwanted growth with lasers. Farmers can decide which option best suits their needs, and the choices will only grow as the market matures.
Agriculture has a reputation for being old-fashioned and heavily manual. Despite its deep historical roots and reputation, today’s agriculture is becoming a high-tech, technology-driven industry. As demand grows and labor shortages persist, more farms will implement automation, leading to a robotic future.
Autonomous machines are relatively new to agriculture, but they have already seen remarkable growth. As adoption continues to increase, it may not be long before robots can handle virtually every task on the farm.
Jane is the founder and editor-in-chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to green technologies, energy and environmental sustainability.