Town & Country
ROBOTS are poised to change the way we farm. A new study by technology intelligence company Idtechex reveals that agricultural robotics is set to boom in the next few years, becoming a £7 billion industry by as early as 2022. ‘Progress and innovation in robotic technology are quietly transforming agriculture,’ says Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, research director at Idtechex.
Across the world, drones have been used to spray crops for several years and dairy farms have now seen the arrival of automated milking parlours as well as mobile robots that push feed or clean slurry. Self-steering tractors are becoming very popular, self-driving ones are on the horizon—models are already available, although farmers and regulators have expressed concerns—and we could soon have vision-enabled automatons scurrying the fields to remove weeds or pick apples and strawberries. Some fruit-harvesting prototypes have already been built and basic robotic de-weeding tools are in use in California.
In the UK, many farmers were initially resistant to robots—reflected in a 2015 episode of The Archers in which David and Ruth react sceptically to Pip’s suggestion that they invest in a robotic milker—but, now, people are beginning to see the advantages.
‘A key factor is finance: “Will this improve the profitability of my farm?”’ says Tom Atkins, a food and farming consultant at Savills. ‘Each case is different, but the more people see the financial benefits, the more likely they are to embrace the technology.’
Mr Atkins himself has first-hand experience of what robots have to offer, having spent the best part of a year managing an automated dairy unit in New Zealand across 2014 and 2015. ‘We were milking 300 cows 24 hours a day, seven days a week,’ he recalls. ‘The cows came in and were milked with no human interaction. Because of this and because of the robots’ consistency, the animals were extremely calm. Aside from the labour savings, the main benefit was the large amount of accurate data the robots generated, such as yield, temperature of the milk and the weight of each cow. You could monitor everything across the year and spot problems almost before they happened.’
It’s precisely this combination of robotics and data analysis that could spark a small agricultural revolution and usher in the era of ultra-precision farming. In coming years, for example, data-mapping drones equipped with sensors will increasingly provide detailed snapshots of each field, monitoring the health of plants, checking yields and identifying potential stressors as they develop. ‘There is a lot of kit out there, with grant funding available for it,’ notes Mr Atkins. ‘These are exciting times.’ Carla Passino
A new study suggests that agricultural robotics could become a £7 billion industry by 2022