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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

Edited by An­nun­ci­ata Wal­ton

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