We Need Robots on Farms to Feed 10 Billion People

Most of us associate farming with arduous manual labor and constantly being exposed to harsh weather conditions. As for farming technology, we think of huge tractors. But the past few years has seen the most sophisticated technologies converge on farms, close to nature: artificial intelligence, robotics, big data, GPS, machine vision and drones.

Robots are already roaming the fields amid farmers, performing a variety of tasks from crop-harvesting to risk management and special analytics.

Examples abound. Watson, an agriculture platform, uses AI and cloud solutions to generate insights into key factors that affect crop yields. These include soil temperature, moisture levels, crop stress, pests and diseases. Watson identifies pests based on drone imagery. Its smartphone app gives farmers best practices for irrigation, planting and fertilization, and the best time of the year to sell a given crop.

A robotic strawberry harvester picks a single strawberry plant in eight seconds. It takes him 1.5 seconds to move to the next plant. A single robot harvester can work eight acres a day, which is equivalent to the work of 30 human workers.

The traditional mode of mechanization meant combining one worker with one big machine, like a tractor, to maximize the areas covered. But the big machines were clumsy and often got bogged down in the mud. Robotic farming is about a lot of small, autonomous robots operating in different fields at the same time, performing the work equivalent of one large machine. The best way to understand this is by looking at Amazon’s automated fulfillment centers. There, a large number of small robots zoom around, optimizing resource allocation and automation processes. Farming robots are moving in the same direction.

Small-size mechanization means new possibilities for remote areas, steep slopes or soft soil areas. Previously marginalized areas could be productive again. Due to labor shortages, farmers often have to leave fields of crops unharvested, which leads to spoilage. With ag-robots that can work 24/7, this won’t be a problem.

Technology can help farmers adopt climate-smart practices. Weeding robots, using electricity and artificial intelligence, can recognize individual weeds and destroy them with precision targeting. Such robots could reduce the cost of weed operations by 90 percent. Farmers save big as they no longer buy pesticides, which contaminate soil and water.

A sensor- and AI algorithms-using mobile app and paper-based soil tests can help farmers learn the chemical makeup of their soil without having to rely on expensive and time-consuming traditional chemical tests. Farmers can monitor the health of soil and irrigate only those plants that need water, thereby saving one of nature’s most precious resources. It’s low cost and the paper-based device can be mass produced and deployed at a large scale through mobile and cloud technologies.

Small farmers have a big opportunity to use farming robots. The key is to lower costs. It has to be scale neutral, so that robotic farming is equally beneficial to both small- and large-scale farmers. Scale neutrality is what will separate robotic farming from the Green Revolution.

How can this be done?

First, all robotics and AI are based on digital technologies, so countries need to keep pushing for wider access to digital technologies. Digital technology tends to benefit those with certain knowledge and skills. So the integration of robotics and AI in agriculture could alienate certain groups. Without preparation, many people could be left behind. An ongoing modeling study showed that smallholders were not able to take advantage of digital technologies if the cost was too high.

If the future of farming is automation, we will not only need machines that could do the work laborers do; we would need a new class of skilled workforce that can handle the machines as managers and technicians. Countries must focus on increasing the skill levels of farm workers to integrate them into the agriculture value chain. This is also an opportunity to bring young people into the agriculture sector. Young people tend to be more skilled and can tackle problems using their business acumen. Governments must make investments to hone their skills.

Second, smallholder farmers should be able to afford robotics. In Africa and Asia, smallholders use apps, like Uber-for-tractor, to rent expensive agricultural equipment. This works like a prepaid mobile phone. Farmers pay to rent the machine only for the time they need it. They pay nothing more. This is the only way to make robotic farming accessible for smallholders. So access to finance and government incentives should be designed to promote service-delivery companies. It can help ensure that farmers will not get into debt to use new technology.

Ultimately, technologies have to be inclusive and adaptable to local needs. Governments should create an environment where everyone can benefit from them. The cost of accessing technologies should be affordable for the poor and the rich alike. People should be capable of using technologies to access information they need. This means educating and training workers to participate in the new economy, and building institutions that can deliver efficient mobile phone-based services. It means putting in place policy and regulations that promote competition and minimize concentration of market power. For countries trying to do these, they can take a page out of playbooks of other countries, like Singapore or South Korea, that have successfully done this.

The defining challenge of our time is meeting the food demands of nearly 10 billion people by 2050, while maintaining economic growth and protecting the environment. Climate change will make this harder. It’s an unprecedented, extraordinary act of balancing priorities and managing trade-offs. AI and robotic farming will play a crucial role in this balancing act.

Smallholder farmers are technology savvy and understand that new things need to happen. If countries can make investments to ensure that they can take advantage of digital technology, the world will be better prepared to produce food for the 21st century.

(Photo: Veejay Villafranca/FAO)