Big vs. Small

The future of robotic agriculture

Published online: Jan 02, 2017 Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, Research Director, IDTechEx
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This article appears in the January 2017 issue of Potato Grower

Agricultural robotics can upend several commonly held notions, among which is the idea that big is better. In practice this has translated into ever larger and more powerful agricultural machinery. This makes sense because a big machine amplifies the capabilities of the skilled driver, dramatically boosting its productivity. This notion may, however, be about to experience a fundamental change, because in the near future, the driver may well be taken totally out of the equation.

A recent report by market research firm IDTechEx Research develops a detailed road map of how robotic technology will enter into different aspects of agriculture, how it will change the way farming is done, how it becomes the future of agrochemicals business, and how it will modify the way we design agricultural machinery.

The report provides detailed technology road maps, technology- and territory-segmented 10-year market forecasts, and comprehensive interview-based company profiles. Overall, the report forecasts that the agricultural robot and drone market will reach $12 billion by 2026.


Fully Autonomous Tractors

Agricultural vehicles have been at the forefront of developing and adopting autonomous navigation technology. More than 320,000 tractors equipped with auto-steering or guidance technology were sold in 2016 alone, with that number expected to rise to 660,000 by 2026. These tractors use RTK GPS technology to autonomously follow pre-planned paths with centimeter-level accuracy. 

The industry is already evolving. Tractor companies worldwide have already demonstrated master-slave or “follow-me” unmanned autonomous tractors or load carts. In these arrangements, a manned operator supervises the movement of the leader tractor, with others following suit.

This technological evolution will further the notion that big is better because it enables amplification of the productivity of the skilled driver via multiple slave vehicles. This arrangement should see increasing use in large-scale crop field farming. Fully and unmanned autonomous tractors will be the next evolutionary step. Multiple semi-commercial prototypes have already been demonstrated by leading agricultural machinery companies.

The technical challenges are largely resolved. Here, the tractor becomes equipped with a variety of overlapping sensors such as LIDAR, RADAR and sonar to provide autonomous navigation and collision avoidance in the absence of a GPS signal.

Technology costs are currently high, but the largest hurdles are in lagging regulatory framework and growers’ desire to stay in charge. These will all inevitably change, particularly as the farming population further ages across the globe. 

Overall, the IDTechEx Research report forecasts that sales of fully autonomous tractors will begin in earnest in 2021 or 2022, topping $200 million in 2026.


Does Size Matter?

The advent of mobile agricultural robots will create the notion that small, light and slow is good. In this vision, few  fast, large, manned tractors become replaced by—or complemented with—many light, slow, small, unmanned robots. 

This lightness means no soil compaction, increasing the useful land on each farm by as much as 3 percent. Slowness means more attention paid to each plant, resulting in better data and more precise plant-specific action. Smallness potentially means lower costs.

Cost is naturally a critical parameter here because large, fast machines are more productive. New classes of agricultural robots will need to be lower-cost by as much as 24 times to make economic sense. This requirement will limit mainstream adoption in the medium-term.

This is a radical shift in the way we view agricultural vehicles. The emerging alternative vision is still in its infancy, but the direction of development is clear. Hundreds of mobile agricultural robots already exist. However, with the exception of 50 or so small machines, most are still in the research or semi-commercial trial stage.

The costs are currently high as well, mostly because such mobile robots require multiple sensors to provide safety and autonomy even in the absence of GPS signals. The early evidence is that farmers do not yet trust them and indeed are not willing to pay extra. This means that some models are being stripped down to the bare minimum required with seemingly simple features removed.


Tech Immaturity Sets Business Model

Such machines are still not completely reliable despite the technology, at the discreet component and software level, being ready and accessible. This manifests itself in the business models of many companies seeking to commercialize such robots. They become service providers so that growers need not bear the entire risk burden and so that skilled operators run the show in case there is a technical fault.


Revolution to Evolution

All this is projected to change in the coming decade. Despite being renowned for conservatism, growers often do take in technology. This is evident in global statistics showing how output has grown despite falling employment in the agricultural sector, which is partly due to the spread of mechanization in farming. The real effect of this conservatism, however, is that potentially revolutionary technologies become evolutionary ones.

This new notion of swarms of unmanned robots will be no exception. The change will be gradual, both technologically and commercially. As the technology improves, the value proposition will have to be proved at every incremental step.

So far, only a few field trials have taken place, and the experimental clock is inevitably limited by harvest seasons, further slowing down the adoption process. Furthermore, many agricultural robots today work well in specially constructed environments, suggesting that perhaps full-scale adoption requires a modification in the way farms are laid out. This will proceed at painstakingly slow rates. 


The full IDTechEx report, “Agricultural Robots and Drones 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players” can be found online at