Is agriculture going the way of robotics?

Robots are entering the agricultural workforce, with a new apple-picker shortly entering production in Washington state.
16 May 2019

There’s been fruitful progress. Source: Unsplash

A new report by market analysts and consultants Tractica has said that global shipments of robots designed for agricultural use are set to rise to a value of US$87.9 billion by 2025.

“Robots and automation technologies have the potential to dramatically improve crop quality and yields, reduce the amount of chemicals used, solve labor shortages, and provide hope for the economic sustainability of smaller farming operations,” said a company spokesperson.

That’s timely news for farmers and food producers on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the UK and the US are seeing significant problems associated with agricultural labor, which are being exacerbated by economic and political pressures.

In the US, there is a massive demand for farm workers from abroad and rises in wage levels, despite a more isolationist attitude to immigration from the incumbent government. Across the pond, UK food producers, who rely heavily on migrant workers from the EU at harvest times, are feeling the pinch from the exodus of the workforce as the country plunges into the economic mire caused by Brexit.

In Washington State, on the US’s west coast, the minimum wage is set to rise to US$13.50 an hour, a rise that Karen Lewis, a tree fruit specialist at Washington State University says could cost a farmer with 250 acres around a quarter of a million dollars, GeekWire reports.

Lewis is currently working with US robotic company, Abundant, on a robotic apple-picking machine that’s due to go into production at harvest time this year, for the first time on US soil. That follows a successful rollout of the devices in New Zealand earlier this year.

The robot benefits from current trends in apple cultivation, which encourages the growth of the fruit on open trellises, and uses dwarf varieties of apple trees carefully bred over many years. Rather than grab for the ripe fruit, the robot sucks individual fruit from the boughs, after LIDAR and imaging technologies identify ripe candidates.

The company that conceived the machine, Abundant, is a startup armed with US$12 million in investment behind it, with Google Ventures among the check-signers.

The company’s CEO, Dan Steere is from farming stock, as are several of his fellow board members. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated with combines, the big machines that would go through and harvest soybeans, or cotton pickers that would drive through and pick cotton,” he told GeekWire.

It’s thought that the reason why Abundant’s machines are successful is that they are a product of close involvement from farm owners and the companies developing the technology. That tends to keep some of the more esoteric technological breakthroughs from causing disappointments. Lewis commented, “We’ve had a bit of over promise, under deliver [from tech companies]. That has led to fatigue among growers.”

Agriculture and more specifically, agricultural labor is one area where AI and robots will in all likelihood make early inroads into jobs. Traditionally low-paid and involving hard physical activity, it’s often that sector’s jobs market that is mostly left to immigrant workforces who don’t mind enduring hardship to make a living in a different, more prosperous country.

What the effects of roboticization will be on local economies is less clear – in many communities dominated by agriculture, price pressures and migrant labor are already creating massive social and economic changes.