The AgTech Revolution: How Technology is Boosting the Agriculture Industry
| By: Catherine Bernier, Content for Cobots, A3 Contributing Editor
When someone thinks about a typical family farm, the images are usually vast fields, grazing livestock, and the farmworkers required to pick, feed, and care for the plants and animals that the world depends on. Yet, at its core, farming hasn’t changed much since the dawn of civilization—people working fields, harvesting plants, and raising the animals to feed us all.
But if you take a closer look, you will realize that, for many in North America’s critically important agricultural sector, the way agriculture works is changing right before our eyes. That change is happening faster than anyone would have thought, and automation and robotics play a starring role.
“It’s not like we can invent more land on the earth to add farms,” says Jenn Apicella, the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Programs, Pittsburgh Robotics Network. “There’s a finite amount of soil, and there is competition for land use by every segment of society. I think we are getting to a point where each geographical region needs to produce more on the same amount of land.”
Why is Agriculture Automation Important?
Very few industries in modern society face the number of challenges seen in the agriculture sector. Many external forces wreak havoc on the farm business, and all are completely out of the business owner’s control. Weather, drought, pests, and disease constantly hammer agriculture. They augment the standard risks any business faces and put significant pressure on historically thin profit margins. Add to this the current stagnation in the available workforce, which was significantly amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, and you have a menu of challenges that seem almost impossible.
“A farmer plants a number of seeds and needs to yield “x” number of crops to earn enough to make the business viable,” says Apicella. “The next phase is how to become more efficient and produce a higher yield on the same land,” adding that this is similar to a manufacturer trying to produce more parts using the same manufacturing line. “How do you increase your yield, harvest more, reduce waste, and become a better producer? While each type of farm would be asking the same questions, the answers will change depending on what type of agriculture is being conducted,” she says. “Regardless of the operation, we are seeing lots of these trigger points related to scalability and efficiency with agricultural owners.”
Automation in Agriculture
In 2018 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) realized it needed a mechanism to help the food supply chain tackle these challenges by leveraging the technology used in many other industries. Its answer was the Agriculture Improvement Act, which authorized funding for research and education, identifying high-priority areas and providing funding to develop technologies, tools, and products through advanced research on long-term and high-risk challenges for food and agriculture.
Among the many items in the act was specific language to develop automation and mechanization for labor-intensive tasks in agriculture, and the government put up plenty of money to get the ball rolling. From 2010 to 2018, it funded $3.4 billion toward 280 digital infrastructure projects that facilitated the use of automation or mechanization in specialty crop production and processing.
Looking at the type of technology being funded, it would be easy to mistake it for manufacturing R&D. The list includes machinery automation, machine learning, data analysis, drones, and sensors. However, agriculture and manufacturing couldn’t be more different, and, aside from the shortage of workers, their respective challenges are unrelated. The similarity in research is that these industries are both turning to automation to obtain the same outcomes: efficiency, scalability, reduced waste, and lower input costs.
From the Factory to the Field
“I can’t say there is a clear one-size approach to adopting automation in any industry, including agriculture,” advises Apicella. “It's very much an efficiency and resource decision for each farmer based on the size, scale, and desired growth. But there is still room to make strategic automation decisions—they do have an opportunity. Whether it's sensor technologies, using a drone to treat the land or observing the state of the fields, I think that there are a lot of new analytics and technologies that will allow even smaller farmers to make better decisions and produce better results,” she says.
Indeed, several key trends are emerging in the adoption of automation in agriculture, and they are all working to achieve these same outcomes for different subsectors of the business. Here’s a look at some of the top trends:
Automated Farm Machinery
The farm tractor is an iconic piece of equipment used to accomplish a number of tasks that usually require a driver to work 8-12 hours behind the wheel while covering acres of land. However, several tractor companies are developing fully autonomous “driverless” solutions to take farming to the next level. One of those companies is Case IH, which has a five-tiered approach to automating machinery. It starts with guidance, which ensures row-to-row accuracy year-over-year, which helps reduce costs and improve yields. The next phase is coordination and optimization, which combines data such as satellite imagery, soil sampling maps, and in-field path plans into a single program accessible from any compatible machine. The third tier starts leaning towards autonomous operation, where the tractor will follow a path while the operator focuses on the implement behind the tractor. The next level is supervised autonomy, where the operator is not in the vehicle but supervising it with a pendant. These units incorporate GPS tracking to maintain path accuracy while sensors help them avoid obstacles. The last tier is full autonomy, where the machine operates on its own with supervision from its human in the farm office or using artificial intelligence.
Case IH Launches Autonomous Tractor Pilot Program with Bolthouse Farms
Drones in Agriculture
Most agricultural concerns cover huge tracts of land, making the current generation of drone technology a perfect fit for several labor-intensive jobs. In 2015, drone manufacturer DJI saw this opportunity and launched an entirely new agriculture division to develop and build drones specifically to automate agriculture tasks. As a result, DJI Agriculture now has a portfolio of drones, each targeting a different job on the farm. For example, its Agras T30 handles spraying. It uses its Smart Agriculture Cloud Platform and cloud-based mapping to help users manage a 3D digital orchard on their smartphone, making it easy to get started with automated agriculture. It also has options for mapmaking, crop inspection, and mission planning for crop protection.
Vertical Farming and Greenhouse Robotics
Using new advances in sensor technology, AI, automated environmental control, and aeroponics, vertical farms are today's answer to scalable agriculture. Companies like AeroFarms and Fifth Season are building indoor farms that stack crops on top of each other, using automation to water, fertilize and monitor crops on a very small footprint. Vertical farms are not just scalable but repeatable, meaning they can be built virtually anywhere, don’t need huge fields for planting, and don’t have seasons so that farmers can grow crops all year long. Even typical greenhouse environments are changing, adding many automated and robotic picking solutions to counteract the scarcity of available workers as well as reducing waste from picking. Four Growers, a company in Turtle Creek, PA., is testing fully optimized robotic picking, starting with harvesting tomatoes. However, the automation doesn't end with picking, as sensors collect and analyze plant data to improve yields and reduce waste.
Challenges to Adopting AgTech
The adoption rate of automation in agriculture is on the rise. A new report hosted by ReportLinker says the global agricultural robots market size is $4.9 billion in 2021, which is a significant market. But this is expected to grow to $11.9 billion by 2026, at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.3 percent.
Clearly, automation in agriculture is expected to boom, but there are several challenges to adoption, the biggest being cost. For example, a driverless tractor is an expensive product just beginning its path to commercialization. But investing in even less expensive automated solutions such as automated milkers or soil sensor arrays can still put serious pressure on any agribusiness with already tight margins.
The other main hurdle to adopting automation in agriculture is trust and reliability. For a farmer or rancher to invest in an automated sprayer or a survey drone for their land, they have to trust that the equipment will do its job for many years to extract the best return on investment. And they must trust that the machine will not damage their crops, animals, or people.
Who is Automating Agricultural Operations
Currently, the largest segment of agricultural automation by type is autonomous (driverless) farm vehicles. While the adoption rate is still quite low because of cost, this technology is expected to eventually be a dominating force in agricultural automation because it's able to provide such a huge boost in productivity.
The fastest-growing automation segment in agriculture is field farming because drones are much more common. Therefore, it's easy to see the benefits of drone technology in agriculture, and this is expected to drive field farming to almost 30 percent of the segment’s market share within the next five years.
North America is currently the largest market for automation in agriculture, mainly because high labor costs and a shortage of workers have forced many operations to embrace robotics, sensors, and other forms of agricultural automation.
Time to Get Started
If your agricultural business is ready to take the journey into automation, the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) is a great place to start. A3 is the trade group representing the entire automation ecosystem. A3 sponsors trade shows, conferences, and other networking events, collects industry statistics, and generates market research, making it the first stop for anyone looking to improve efficiency and productivity from automation in agriculture. Get involved in the A3 community by becoming a member today.