Tech Transformers

Robot farmers are coming to a field near you

Agriculture is one of the oldest economic activities on Earth, but robot technology may shake it up sooner than you think.

Employing robots is costly, but prices are falling to become increasingly competitive with human labor, Lux Research said on Wednesday. The emerging technologies research firm said robots could increasingly be used to perform tasks like pruning grapevines, fruit picking, cultivating lettuce and moving potted plants around greenhouses.

"Currently robots often aren't affordable — cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption," Lux Research analyst, Sara Olson, said.

"However, the costs of many systems are coming down, while wages rise due to labor shortages in some areas, and the benefits robots bring in the form of increased accuracy and precision will start to pay off in coming years," she added.

Autonomous Tractor Corporation's Spirit discs a field.
Autonomous Tractor Corporation

Robots are already in use in typically large U.S. corn plantations, where automated driving systems for tractors or combine harvesters have reached market penetration of around 10 percent.

"The gap between labor cost and Autosteer- or Edrive-assisted labor in U.S. corn farming is relatively small and will become negligible by 2020," Lux Research.

In Japan, using robots to harvest strawberries is roughly cost-equivalent to human labor if the 'bots are shared between multiple farms, Lux Research said.

"With strawberry-picking being slow and labor-intensive, and labor scarce and expensive — the average agricultural worker in Japan is over 70 years old – the robot is quickly likely to become the cheaper option," it said.

Lux Research also forecast European lettuce-growing — a major industry on the continent — would become automated by 2028.

"Automated lettuce weeding is already competitive with human labor in Europe, thanks to regulatory limitations on agrochemicals. Lettuce thinning is still accomplished manually at lower cost, but robots are likely to reach breakeven with human labor in 2028," it said.

Vision Robotics Lettuce Thinner identifies lettuce seedlings and spray unwanted plants.
Vision Robotics

The global market for agricultural robots will explode to $73.9 billion by 2024, up from $3.0 billion 2015, according to Tractica, a market intelligence firm. It forecast driverless tractors would generate the most revenue — $30.7 billion by 2024 — with agricultural drones clocking up the most unit shipments.

Drones with specialized cameras are increasingly used for monitoring crops and livestock. A newer use is crop spraying — which can be dangerous for laborers due to the chemicals used — although this is expensive and currently only used by large farms.

"As technology continues to evolve, farmers and ranchers will reassess in order to make the most practical decisions for their bottom line," the president of the U.S. National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, told CNBC on Wednesday.

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