The process of farming has changed little in thousands of years. A farmer works the fields in preparation for planting, plants the seeds, tends to the plants as they begin to grow, harvests the crop, and starts the cycle over and over again.
However, as the Earth’s population continues to rise, the food production demand will also escalate. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that worldwide food production will need to increase 70 percent over the next few decades to feed the 9.7 billion population projected for 2050.1
To address the food supply challenges in the agriculture industry, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Agriculture Improvement Act in 2018, which authorized almost $300 million in funding for research to develop automation and mechanization to improve crop production and processing.
Manufacturers of agricultural products have also joined the “smart farming” revolution by developing automated farm machinery, including autonomous tractors, remote seeders and weeders, drones, and robotic harvesters, all focused on addressing the challenges of the modern farming business.
Why farming automation is needed
As if the looming need to feed the world’s growing population were not enough, farmers are dealing with many other challenges in sustaining their business, including staffing shortages, limited opportunities for land expansion, and environmental conditions outside their control.
The agriculture and farming industries were already finding it difficult to find the manpower needed to run their day-to-day farming businesses. The demand for higher wages, waning interest in the agriculture industry among younger generations, and decline in immigrants—which often make up over 70 percent of the labor force—were all contributing factors.
Then COVID-19 amplified the problem. The United Kingdom even launched a “Pick for Britain” campaign in an attempt to recruit workers to assist farmers during picking seasons, with little success. As such, farms are struggling to find a way to do more with fewer human resources.
About 38 percent of global land is used in agriculture, with about one-third used as cropland and the remaining used for grazing livestock.2 In the US, roughly 52 percent of land is utilized for agriculture production.3 While that may seem like a lot, there is very little room for expansion, and there is competition with the human population and industry for use of that land.
To keep up with food production models, each farm needs to become more efficient, reduce waste, and produce a higher yield on the same amount of land.
Environmental conditions and regulations
In most industries, a business can control its expenses, margins, and profits. However, in farming, so much is outside the business owner’s control, like weather and drought, as well as constantly changing regulations on handling pests and diseases. There have been historically thin profit margins in farming, and one bad season due to lack of rain, or the increased cost to switch to a newly approved pesticide, can bankrupt a farm business.
Major technological advances in farm automation
The goal of farm automation is to increase production efficiency and make it easier to perform labor-intensive tasks. The following technologies can bring significant change to the future of farming and the agriculture industry.
Nearly every futuristic sci-fi movie flaunts fully-automated, self-driving cars. We see television commercials with modern cars that can park themselves or drive in a straight line for an indefinite amount of time. That same technology has reached the farm.
With GPS and satellite navigation and various sensor technologies, farmers can remotely plan out routes on their acres of land and send the machinery to till the farm or create planting rows, saving a complete workday behind the wheel. And just like your household’s automated vacuum robot, these automated tractors can be equipped with computer vision to identify obstacles in their path.
The row-to-row accuracy helps improve field yields. and automation saves on labor costs. Some companies are even creating autonomous technology that can be retrofitted into existing machinery, eliminating the need for the farm to invest in new tractors.
While drones have been a frequent must-have toy on children’s Christmas lists, they have also been developed to handle a multitude of agricultural tasks.
Cameras, infrared and hyperspectral imaging, and 3D mapping equipped to drones can help farmers monitor crop health, assess soil quality, and plan planting locations. This technology has replaced the need for helicopter or small aircraft pilots to take aerial photographs.
Drones can also be used to apply fertilizer and pesticides, another labor-intensive task on the farm. Site-specific application software can reduce the amount of pesticides and fertilizer used, which can reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Automated seed drones are mostly used in the forestry industry to plant trees in hard-to-reach areas that pose risks to workers. However, that technology is being adapted to the farming industry as well. Seed drones are capable of targeting the rowed land and use compressed air to shoot the seeds precisely into the ground without allowing the wind to scatter them, reducing seed waste.
Weeding and ensuring plants have room to grow is a critical aspect of crop management and can require immense manual labor. However, small remote-controlled robots can assist farmers in this necessary task.
Using advanced machine learning, these bots can differentiate the weeds from the crops and use tines to till out the individual weeds. Not only does this automation help manage labor costs, but it also saves the farming business money it would have invested in herbicides and other chemicals, the traditional way to eliminate weeds. As an added environmental bonus, fewer chemicals enter the air and soil.
Harvesting produce has always been difficult, requiring a large labor force and producing waste due to bruising or damage. Harvesting is also limited to a window of time or else the efforts of the season are ruined. However, advances in technology have introduced harvesting robots that can handle everything from the field to the tree to the vine.
Tomato-picking robots use cameras and software algorithms to identify the tomato’s color, shape, and location on the vine to determine if it’s ready for picking. Using a mechanized arm, it can pick the tomato by the stem to avoid bruising or crushing the fruit.
Some fruit tree-picking robots use the same computer vision to determine if the fruit is ripe for picking, using vacuum power to extract the fruit, an innovation called soft harvesting. Gentle suction cups or padded grabbing tools choose each piece of fruit individually and place it, unharmed, in a receptacle.
Strawberries and other tender fruits require backbreaking work during the picking season. Several manufacturers have focused efforts to make this crop easier to harvest. In the US, Harvest Croo Robotics is testing an automated berry-picking machine that can select and pick three berries every 10 seconds. What would take 30 humans an entire day can be gathered in 20 hours by one machine.4
There is even a mechanical lettuce harvester that uses an intense water jet along the ground’s surface, cutting the vegetable at its base. This harvesting machine replaces the traditional farming method of hand labor and a sharp metal blade.
Hurdles to farms adopting automation technology
Farm automation can help the agriculture industry meet the needed increase in production, while at the same time solving labor shortage problems and allowing for increased care of the environment. But as with every innovation, there are hurdles to its adoption, and automation in farming is no exception, the biggest being cost.
That mechanical lettuce harvester mentioned earlier could cost the farm around $750,000. Autonomous tractors can cost just as much. And while some drones, sensor technology, and smaller robots are more affordable, investing in this technology when most farms already have tight profit margins is a challenge. It’s even more difficult for farms in developing countries to afford these new machines.
Another hurdle is trust and reliability. For a farmer to invest they have to trust that the equipment will do its job for many years and have an excellent return on investment. They also must trust that the machine will not damage their land or crops and be reliable, without maintenance downtime or expense.
Agriculture labs use informatics to complement innovations in farming
As farmers upgrade their businesses with automation, taking advantage of advanced analytics is the next logical step. Farm-focused agriculture labs can assist with soil and seed analysis, among other things, and utilize the data captured by drones and crop sensors to provide recommendations for crop rotation, fertilizer adjustments, or new pesticide treatments.
A laboratory information management system (LIMS) from LabLynx provides agriculture labs with a means of tracking and storing all that sample data, as well as managing chain-of-custody and workflows, integrating with third-party software, and providing the reporting and auditing tools every lab needs to stay compliant with regulation and good laboratory practices.
For more information on the benefits of laboratory informatics in agriculture laboratories, read the LabLynx article “Informatics in the Agriculture Industry”.