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Have you ever seen a crane operator swivel a crane? Or a bulldozer clearing rubble? These machines are so common in our world that we often take them for granted.
To understand robotics and their use in agriculture, we first need to understand what a robot is. Although science fiction paints scary portraits of human-shaped machines which slowly replace us, a robot can be as simple as a motion-sensing door that swings open when you walk towards it! A robot is nothing but machinery or electronics which replace any type of human effort.
Until the first steam engine, humans didn’t have very much power at all. The only power available to us was natural – people doing things themselves or using animals to accomplish tasks. In fact, the average Egyptian Pharaoh or Ming Emperor had less energy available to them than a person driving an eighteen-wheeler truck.
For millennia, the main jobs of human beings were gathering and growing food. Only when a society produced more than they consumed could people become involved in professions other than food production. With increasing energy and technical improvements, the percentage of a population involved in farming is now as little as 3% in some developed countries. Can we imagine a future where no humans at all are involved in farming?
It’s very different from the time of the Ming Dynasty, isn’t it?
What are robotics used for in agriculture?
The process of farming involves everything from soil to seed to table. First, the crop must be planned based on soil quality, rainfall, and economic benefit. Growing rice in the Sahara desert wouldn’t work very well! This is where human creativity and decades of expertise can combine with artificial intelligence.
Preparing fields to plant crops is also no easy task. It involves days or weeks of intense labor, which machines and automation can help with. Sowing seeds comes after preparing the fields. When covering huge areas, farmers play the game of numbers. Usually, they toss out hundreds of seeds in the hopes that some take root. Robotic sowers can repeatedly plant each seed to the perfect depth!
Tending crops until harvest is the following stage. This involves weeding, fertilizing crops, removing pests and insects, and watering plants. Robots are much more specific than humans typically are. They can selectively remove insects and eggs, and uproot specific weeds. Even drip irrigation systems, which are relatively common today, are just simple robots.
Harvesting uses robots too! Although crops are planted at the same time, some are ready to harvest sooner than others. Intelligent robots can monitor and remove crops at the right time. The packing and shipping processes can then be automated, too!
Agriculture also includes animal agriculture. The most common technological innovations in that field are cattle milkers and sheep shearers, but engineers are confident this is just the beginning.
What are the advantages?
Farming is difficult, often dangerous work. Many farmers develop illnesses from working in close contact with pesticides and insecticides . Farming can also be very physically taxing. With robotics, farmers no longer have to handle the pesticides and insecticides used. Many of the challenging tasks can also be undertaken by machines, with human supervision. When people no longer have to spend as much time on physical tasks, there is more time for creative and complex tasks.
The higher precision of robots is also great for the environment! Globally, the greatest use of fresh water is in agriculture. Delivering water at the right time and in the correct quantity to each plant can reduce the need for water. Similarly, increased precision can reduce chemical pollution. By using less pesticide and insecticide, and over a smaller area, less can make its way into the environment.
As electricity is increasingly produced through sun, wind, and other renewable sources, electric robots can also reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in agriculture.
Robots also do not get bored or tired, and they can work 24/7! This can greatly improve crop yield and efficiency. Human populations will continue to grow for the next decades, and there’s only so much we can expand the area in which we grow crops. Using the same area more effectively can address some of the worlds’ food shortage issues.
What are the challenges?
Robots are expensive! The most urgent concern with robots is the cost. Some of the cost is reduced by improved efficiency and yield, but it’s still a huge initial expense. As engineers innovate, we can expect costs to get lower.
Automation is also scary. What if people lose their jobs? What if they are replaced by machines? This is where regulation and human policy makers need to draw lines on what machines are used, and how many are in use, to ensure people still have jobs, and that machines replace only jobs that are dangerous or unwanted.
Although power and energy can improve human lives, it’s important to consider how it can impact human lives negatively, too.
What do you think? What kind of robotics are okay to use, and which should be avoided?
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 8.3
Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 57.4
Pesticides: Chemicals used to kill agricultural pests
Insecticides: Chemicals used to kill insects that might reduce crop yields
Robot: A machine or electronic device that replaces human effort
McNeill, J. R. (2001). Something New under the Sun. W. W. Norton & Company, Incorporated.