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5 Reasons to Implement Automation in Agriculture

POSTED 02/28/2024  | By: Carrine Greason, A3 Contributing Editor

Automation in agriculture has taken root to become a high-growth industry for many reasons. Farmers are widely benefiting from their use of sensors, electronic actuators, and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) as well as GPS and advanced analytics in agricultural robots, smart agriculture, and precision agriculture. Autonomous grain-harvesting combines, GPS-enabled autonomous tractors, trailer-based systems, agricultural robots, crop and soil monitoring systems, automated indoor facilities like greenhouses as well as conveyors and sorting systems enable farmers to use fewer chemicals, automate indoor production, optimize human labor, reduce injuries, and increase yields. 

Demand is high. The smart agriculture market—precision farming, livestock monitoring, and smart greenhouses—is valued at $22B globally and expected to expand at 13.7% annually. A related field, the agricultural robot market, which reduces dependency on manual labor, is valued at $11B and is expected to grow even faster at 20% annually. A more established technology called automated guidance is used on more than half of corn, cotton, rice, sorghum, soybeans, and winter wheat acreage in the United States.

To discover how and why farmers use automation in the field, we talked to automation experts at LINAK, Performance Motion Devices (PMD), and Vecow. 

Specialized automation technology used in agriculture 

Farming presents a challenging physical environment for automation technology—far more challenging than a typical industrial environment. Agricultural equipment is exposed to extreme outdoor temperatures as well as shocks, vibrations, dust, and moisture. Uneven ground and micro-environments create fluctuating conditions. The availability of power is limited on mobile equipment. Compounding the challenge, farms are often located far from IT infrastructure, so connectivity to cloud computing services is often impractical. 

In the remote environments and real-time applications of agriculture, data from sensors must be processed in the field, close to the source. Ready-to-use ruggedized computing units based on x86 platforms, ARM microprocessors and NVIDIA Jetson systems help manufacturers to acquire the compute power needed to process an ever-increasing volume of sensor data for smart agriculture applications, explains Thomas Su, VP, North American Sales Lead at Vecow, a company offers high-performance rugged AI computing platforms to implement real-time AOI technology for industrial and agricultural applications. 

Manual tasks are automated with electro-mechanical components such as electronic actuators, sprayers, pumps, and motor controllers. “A dramatic increase in motor-driver efficiency in recent years has resulted in smaller motors that provide more power with less energy, which enables new applications,” says Chuck Lewin, CEO at Performance Motion Devices (PMD). By pairing off-the-shelf motor controllers with a common motion control language, product developers can now add features more easily and with less customization, he adds.
                
System integration brings the parts together through 10GigE/PoE LAN/USB data connections, CAN buses, internet switches, and power supplies, which are available stand-alone and as pre-integrated and custom units combined with processor cores, Thomas says.

Using such components solves engineering challenges, delivers benefits to farmers and feeds consumers, as the following five reasons for implementing automation in agriculture demonstrate.

Reason #1: Reduce resources used to grow crops

The need for more precise application of scarce, costly, or environmentally risky products—seeds, water, and agrochemicals, such as fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides—is one reason agricultural businesses turn to automation. Working with agricultural OEMs and seeing automated and autonomous machinery up close at the Farm Progress tradeshow led Andrew McGinnis, application engineer at LINAK, to appreciate agricultural automation that reduces inputs applied to fields. “Sowing seeds precisely and minimizing the application of herbicide, pesticide, fertilizer, and water contribute to healthy crops and enable farmers to produce food at lower cost. Precision agriculture also reduces the environmental impact of the industry,” he says. 

Legislation in Europe is a leading source of demand for automation that reduces agricultural inputs, McGinnis explains, and he is seeing growing interest in North America as well. The Farm to Fork and biodiversity strategies advocated by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), aim to reduce the use of agricultural inputs as part of the broader EU Green Deal that promotes a healthy food system for people and the planet. Key elements include reducing the use of chemical pesticides by 50% and fertilizer by at least 20% by 2030. 

Variable rate technology (VRT) is a type of precision agriculture that applies the right number of seeds or amount of water or agrichemical at each point as the machinery moves across the field. While initial uptake of the technology was sluggish according to the USDA, adoption is on the rise, especially among large farms, which can spread the fixed costs over greater production volumes. 

Source: USDA

By contrast, the market for automated fruit harvesters and small, lightweight robotic weeders is nascent. Early entrants include a strawberry picking machine, an apple picking machine, and a laser-powered system that destroys weeds without herbicides, among other creative solutions. 

Reason #2: Grow compact high-value produce efficiently indoors

Growing fresh salad greens, herbs, and eye-popping red tomatoes is a process ripe for automation. These high-end agricultural products can be grown near consumers 365 days a year and fetch high prices, Lewin explains. Organic farming is a tremendous driver of indoor automation in agriculture, he says. The availability of documented data about precisely applied inputs may also increase a crop’s market value. 

Using gantries to shuttle around materials like ingredients in a potato chip factory, automated indoor agricultural facilities, such as vertical farms and greenhouses, produce high-quality food in response to high-end consumer demand. Vertical farming—growing food in stacked layers, such as in a warehouse, city skyscraper, or shipping container, often in an urban area—represents a global market valued at $7B. A growth rate of 20% per year is expected through 2030, driven by consumer demand for fruits and vegetables produced in environmentally friendly ways. 

In such facilities, gantries position robotic arms that hold automated sprayers, robots mix soilless potting media and tend plants, and conveyors move potted plants and the harvest. Indoor agricultural automation uses small control motors and controllers—often 1KW or less—that are much smaller than those used in an outdoor trailer-based automated spraying system. “Spraying indoors is a motion-control application. Pointing is the most sophisticated part, using a variable speed drive. A software-programmed amount of fluid is dispensed using a pump that spins at variable speeds,” Lewin explains. 

Some indoor agricultural facilities look like semiconductor factories—with humans clad in cleanroom bunny suits to minimize the spread of microbes. In situations where such a high level of hygiene is required, agricultural robots and automation offer sanitary advantages in contrast to human workers, Lewin says. 

Reason #3: Optimize the use of human labor 

Farm work is difficult. Farmers often need workers at precise but inconsistent times—to prepare the field, sow, weed, prune, and harvest the crop—through long, hard days of work. A dependable labor pool might be eliminated in an instant, as occurred during the COVID pandemic. Even in normal times, many people avoid farm work for health and safety reasons. “The labor situation creates risk for farmers. Agricultural robots, automated machines and autonomous systems help fill a gap in the labor supply,” McGinnis says. In some cases, automation may enable one person to manage multiple systems at once. 

An autonomous clean-tech electric robot tractor from Farmertonics mows grass and removes weeds in a vineyard in the Netherlands using actuators from LINAK. Source: LINAKAutomation makes the work easier. “Where an operator would have to continuously look out the cab window, autonomous row-following technology can reduce operator fatigue, enabling a longer day with less strain,” McGinness explains. Row following and automatic turning are well-established and mature technologies in which an automated tractor is programmed to follow GPS-guided paths and turn automatically, he says. 

The operator need only to drive into the field and start the program, after which the telemetry guides the tractor, adds Jordan Emily, a marketing specialist at LINAK who works with McGinnis. 

Soil testing is yet another task made easier with automated agriculture. At a recent AgriTechnika show, Radicle Agronomics, owned by Precision Planting, demonstrated equipment that collects, containerizes, and labels soil samples with RFID chips that store the GPS coordinates of each of the samples’ original location. The system then analyzes the soil autonomously, ensuring that each sample is processed correctly every time. 

Reason #4: Reduce injuries and protect human safety

In-cab controls automate physical tasks that previously required an operator to leave the cab to manhandle farm equipment—such as installing a cover, lifting a hood to access an engine and cooling package, or moving a large ballast package out of the way. “Instead of requiring a cab operator to get out of the cab to make a manual adjustment, an electric actuator can provide precise control from within the cab,” McGinnis says. 

Such actuators save time and toil—and reduce injuries as well. “Automation reduces operator effort and the risk of injuries from lifting heavy objects or performing awkward movements,” Emily adds. 

Reason #5: Reduce wastage and increase crop yield 

For all time and in many ways, technology has driven crop yields higher. Automation technology will continue to help agricultural businesses increase yields, says McGinnis. “One way to increase yield is to reduce wastage and spillage. A mature application of agricultural automation is the use of automated grain collection and transportation carts that lock speed to travel alongside a combine harvester. The two vehicles travel through the field together with the grain cart on a separate tractor,” he explains. In addition to preventing wastage, no time is wasted manually loading a grain storage cart or transporting it back to a processing station—and a less skilled operator can run the grain cart.

Fully autonomous farm equipment is on the horizon

Incremental technology advancements over the past 20 years are leading to fully autonomous farming as the wave of the future, says McGinnis. Farm equipment may not even require an operator to be in the field. Several recent announcements from John Deere—a global leader in the production of agricultural, construction, and forestry equipment and solutions—highlight this trend. First, at CES 2022, John Deere revealed a fully autonomous tractor, that combines a Deere 8R tractor, TruSet-enabled chisel plow, GPS guidance system, and other advanced technologies. Then, in 2023, the company took automated farming to the next level with a solution that inserts starter fertilizer into seeds at the moment they are planted. Most recently, at CES 2024, the company featured an automated cotton picking system that picks, processes, and bales RFID-tracked bales of cotton and announced secure software updates for embedded controllers on wireless 4G-connected equipment. 

By embracing automation in agriculture, farmers unlock savings, sustainability and market value while addressing labor shortages and improving safety and yields. From automated systems to autonomous harvesters, agricultural automation companies help to ensure that farmers have the tools and technologies they need to succeed.