08-09-2020 | | By Sam Brown
Robotics and AI have already begun to shape humanity, and even one of man’s oldest industries, agriculture, is now being affected. What problems do farmers typically face, what robotic and AI solutions are currently under development, and how will they change agriculture in the future?
Of all the inventions and discoveries by man, agriculture was the most important of all. The invention of agriculture, whereby crops are planned, and animals are domesticated, meant that people could settle into strong communities, with well-defined borders that kept predators at bay. The creation of settlements also saw humans move away from their nomadic days, and this allowed for proper planning of food and supplies. The ability to store food also provided people with free time, and free time lead to thinking. Thinking lead to other discoveries, including metalworking, astronomy, and mathematics, and from there, the modern world was created. Agriculture is so vital for society to grow that most technological revolutions are as a result of a surplus of food. For example, the industrial revolution (which brought steam power), was only possible thanks to improvements in agriculture as well as ideal weather conditions in the UK.
The agriculture industry is faced with a wide range of problems, and yet it is amazing that the public never face most of these issues. To start, price volatility can cause issues with regards to profit margins, something that many farmers already struggle with to stay competitive. Secondly, agriculture practices are heavily dependent on weather conditions (a particularly dry season can kill off an entire crop). Thirdly, pests and disease can quickly rampage across whole lands, requiring the culling of crop and livestock.
While price volatility is more of an economic issue, environmental factors are a result of mother Earth’s mood and something that can be difficult to fight against. The mass use of pesticides can ensure that a crop remains undamaged by pests, but can also cause ecological harm by killing off useful insects such as bees, wasps, and spiders. Droughts can be fought off by watering, but the quantity of water used can be astronomical, and large portions of water can go into growing unwanted plants (such as weeds). Weeds can be removed using herbicides, but these again come with their faults. Some can be carcinogenic to life, while others may cause damage to the environment as they are washed into rivers and streams.
To make matters worse, increasing wages and living standards is increasingly making it harder to find workers for farms at profitable rates. While many argue that those working on farms should be paid decent wages, those same individuals would be upset to pay three times the amount on food than they already do. While one solution to ensuring fair practices is to accept that food should be more expensive than it currently is, another lies in the form of technology.
By removing the human element in farming, agriculture businesses can not only improve their yields, but they can also do it at a reduced cost. Despite large advances in robotics, the use of automated robotic systems in farming is far and few between. Reasons for this include the difficulty in penetrating the agriculture market (which itself may see resistance against modern technology) and the low-profit margins that make it difficult to invest in new technology. Robotic systems can be used to replace a wide range of tedious tasks that require manual work, including tiling of land, planting, watering, and harvesting. While not entirely robotic, a combine harvester is an example of machinery that can automatically cut wheat, and separate the grain from the stems.
The Ecorobotix is an example of a robotic system that is designed to minimise the usage of herbicides used by farmers. The drone is automated, solar-powered, and uses visual technology to identify individual weeds. Once identified, herbicides are directed towards the weed, instead of dusting the entire crop, and not only does this improve environmental safety, it also uses up to 90% less herbicide, thus making it 30% cheaper than traditional treatments.
The LettuceBot2 is a robotic attachment to a traditional tractor that utilises weed identification systems to minimise herbicides. The system also can thin out lettuce crop to ensure that each plant has the space needed to grow, and selective watering ensures that only lettuce plants are watered, leaving surrounding land difficult for weeds to establish themselves.
AI technology is often used hand-in-hand with robotic technologies as it allows for visual tasks to spot and catalogue plants. The ability to learn allows for such robotic systems to improve their performance over time, and eventually become entirely independent from human interaction. Not only can they learn about identifying plants, but they also can gather large amounts of data regarding water to yield ratios, temperature logging, precipitation rates, and soil nutrition. From there, AI systems could improve farm yield over time and help to reduce dependencies on fertilisers, herbicides, and pesticides. The two previous examples, Ecorobotic and LettuceBot2, both integrate AI technologies to help identify weeds for precise farming methods. Thus, AI solutions often coincide with robotic developments as opposed to being stand-alone products.
There is no doubt that AI-driven robotic systems will become mainstream in the agricultural industry, and its introduction will significantly help to improve yields while also helping the environment. Climate change will bring about unpredictable weather patterns, including long droughts and extreme rain, thus potentially harming global food production. History tells us that an army marches on its stomach, and the same appears to be true for technology; after all, even engineers need to eat sometimes.