Experts View Ag Robot Revolution as Imminent

Published online: Aug 20, 2018 Articles Michael Larkin
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Source: Investor's Business Daily

A farming robot revolution is imminent, with fruit-picking machines nearly ready to roll into the fields and start replacing human workers.

Of the industries facing automation, agriculture could see the most upside from robots in the next few years. And the farming robot wave, along with other new agricultural technology, could come even sooner than you think, as the Trump administration's immigration crackdown worsens an acute labor shortage.

Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster compares this next agricultural revolution to the one seen last century, when new equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield crop breeds sparked an explosion in farm production around the world.

"I think agriculture is the greatest near-term — I define over the next five years — opportunity around robotics and autonomy," he said.

The relative lack of red tape on wide-open fields is a boon to the farming robot and other new agricultural technology. Compare that to the safety rules needed to deploy self-driving cars on congested city streets. That, plus the labor shortage, helps create "a wonderful intersection between robotics and agriculture," Munster added.

Goldman Sachs estimates precision farming — the combination of agriculture and technology — could be a $240 billion market by 2050. Automation will be a key piece of the puzzle. Market tracker Euromonitor says the intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence, analytics and machines for precision farming is one of the industry's top business opportunities.

"I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity," William Blair analyst Lawrence De Maria told IBD. "The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers. It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity."

Farming Robots Must Fill Unwanted Jobs

Farming's labor crunch is a global problem. And the industry expects things to get worse in the years to come. Even in Mexico, where many California workers have originated, firms are finding it tough to man the fields.

"Whether it's berries or lettuce or grapes, we're all scrambling for labor availability," said Scott Komar, senior vice president of R&D at U.S. berry producer Driscoll's.

And higher wages aren't persuading people to perform the physically demanding task of berry picking, he adds.

The 2017 median pay for an agricultural worker was $23,730 per year, or $11.41 per hour, the Labor Department says. In California, the biggest producer of farm products in the U.S., farm wages can top $20 per hour. But this is still not enough to attract laborers at a sufficient level.

The need for robotics in farming "is immediate," said David Slaughter, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis.

"The political climate has accelerated the problem," he told IBD. "We are, on some things, a little bit behind the curve in terms of meeting the market demand."

Rise Of The Farming Robot

Driscoll's is one of America's largest produce distributors. Along with its network of independent growers, it controls around a third of the $6 billion U.S. berry market. It has been testing a number of robots to harvest fruit. One of those is Harvest CROO Robotics' farming robot.

Robotic farming
Harvest CROO's machine is headed for farms in Florida and California next year. (Harvest CROO Robotics)

The Florida-based startup is developing a robot strawberry picker that two-thirds of the strawberry industry has helped fund to bring to market. A single Harvest CROO Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer) machine will be able to pick a plant in just 8 seconds. It will also cover eight acres in a single day and replace a team of more than 30 human pickers.

Next year, the company expects to start fielding its harvesters in Florida and California, COO Paul Bissett says. "We're probably about two years out from full commercialization."

But Harvest CROO doesn't plan to sell its robot harvesters. Instead, it's finding that growers and the strawberry distributors want robotics as a service.

In Europe, Spanish company Agrobot is developing a rival strawberry farming robot. Its machine uses up to 24 robotic arms to pick fruit and is capable of autonomous navigation.

And in England, Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own series of smart autonomous robots capable of picking fruit. Smaller in size than the Harvest CROO and Agrobot offerings, Dogtooth machines will be capable of autonomous navigation, locating and picking ripe fruit, and grading its quality.

Agriculture Technology Across The Supply Chain

In Cambridge, Mass., privately owned Soft Robotics has developed a robotic gripping system that has the same dexterity as the human hand. Its robotic arms are equipped with soft grippers that can even handle fragile produce such as apples and tomatoes. The firm is targeting both harvesting and food processing to automate the supply chain.

"With soft robotics we can now automate harvesting, processing, packaging and even grocery logistics," in a way that hasn't been available before, CEO Carl Vause said. "With our technology we are able to give the industrial robots that are tried and true out there today for speed, for precision (and) for lifetime operations, the ability to do high-speed handling of apples, tomatoes, heads of lettuce (and) strawberries."

Meanwhile, UC Davis researchers have developed a "no touch" vineyard, where machines do everything. A robotic irrigation system directed by sensors waters the vines. Then machines are used to pick the fruit. The system allows for around 40 more plants per acre, improving yields, quality and costs. It costs around 7 cents per vine in labor to manage the touchless vineyard, compared to $1 in a conventional vineyard.

Industry Giants Eye Automated Farming Too

John Deere pioneered self-driving technologies, even though they are more popularly linked to Tesla. Current tractors can drive themselves after an operator maneuvers them around the perimeter of a field. Full automation may come soon.

Deere continues to seek new innovations and bought Blue River Technology for $305 million last summer. Blue River developed a robot that can see, diagnose, and execute actions such as whether to spray a weed with herbicide. Its machine learning expertise in agriculture was a key reason for the purchase.

But Munster says Deere faces the same problem Apple had when it killed the iPod with the iPhone.

"If they don't advance from a technology standpoint, someone can come in and steal the business," Munster said. "But by advancing on that, it can be negative for their business too, because you usher in a new generation of machines that potentially would need less maintenance."

Agriculture Technology: Beyond Fruit-Picking Robots

Slaughter believes a mix of disciplines will bring far-reaching changes to the farm. At UC Davis, he leads the Smart Farm initiative, which brings together engineering, computer science and biological science. It aims to use agriculture technology to increase production of food and renewable energy in the face of climate change.

Robotic farming
The UC Davis Smart Farm project is experimenting with an automated crop sprayer. (UC Davis)

One Smart Farm robot has a telescopic neck and is armed with cameras. It can zoom around on rails and collect data on how much light plants are capturing.

"The big data, the sensing, the AI, the robotics — a lot of that is going to allow a massive transformation in agriculture," Slaughter said.

Berry producer Driscoll's is looking at other types of agriculture technology too. It tested an autonomous buggy that analyzes the health of plants. The machine can examine 1,500 plants per hour. It should be capable of operating fully autonomously with a 98% accuracy rate by the end of 2019.

Meanwhile, CNH Industrial in February partnered with Microsoft to develop connected vehicles. The aim is to produce farm machines with new connectivity technologies powered by Microsoft's Azure cloud platform.

How To Invest In Robotics

ROBO Global created the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation industry with its Robotics & Automation ETF. President and CIO William Studebaker has been following the progress of agricultural robots with a keen eye. He says farming is a "massive market" for robotics, with a lot of disruption on the horizon.

"It's all about trying to reduce costs and save time. It's going to be a growth industry for a long time," Studebaker said. "The pace of change is only accelerating, and it's accelerating very dramatically right now. Either you innovate or you will be out of business. Innovation wins, and that's what's going on."

He believes we can barely see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact automation will have on farming going forward.

"If you look at the innings we're in with robotics and AI, we're not even in the first inning yet," he said. "The players are still in the locker room getting their clothes on."