Driverless Tractors, Drone Crop Dusters, Automated Milking: Agriculture Called the ‘Most Attractive’ Robotics Market Opportunity
Just as we’re becoming acclimated to the brave new world of driverless cars, driverless tractors and other agricultural robots will, in the not too distant future, harvest the food we put on our kitchen tables.
In fact, agricultural automation – in the form of driverless farm machinery, drone crop dusters, automated milking systems and other emerging technologies – offers “the most important and attractive” global market opportunity for robotics industry players, according to a new report issued by market intelligence firm Tractica, Boulder, CO.
Major agricultural manufacturers, including John Deere, UK-based CNH Industrial and Yamaha, along with a host of start-ups, are actively pursuing the ag robotics market, which Tractica expects to grow from $3 billion in 2015 to $16 billion by the end of 2020 and $74 billion by 2024.
“Driverless tractors are in the early stages of commercialization,” Clint Wheelock, Tractica managing director and co-author of the report, told EnterpriseTech, “and up to this point have been in the prototype stage. With that said, we expect that the next few years will be a time of significant growth for this category, with approximately 500 unit shipments in 2016 – marking the beginning of true commercialization – about 1,600 units in 2017, and more than 4,100 in 2018.”
Driving the growth in agricultural automation is a convergence of “food crisis” coming to bear on the worldwide agricultural industry, including:
- An explosion in the world’s population from 7.3 billion today to 8.2 billion by 2025
- A near doubling in global demand for food over the next 10 years
- A deceleration in crop yield growth
- A scarcity of farm labor due to an aging farm workforce and depopulating rural areas
Exploiting this market, however, will be a difficult row to hoe, more difficult in some ways, according to Tractica, than the challenges by driverless cars.
“Robotic solutions have to deal with unstructured environments and unstructured targets,” Tractica reported. “The farm environment is usually dynamic, uncertain, complex, highly variable, and hostile. And the targets for the agricultural robots are non-uniform, delicate, and need proper techniques. It is still hard to replace human-like dexterity with high reliability in many agricultural processes.”
Beyond the technical challenge of perfecting robots for farm environments, Tractica said the biggest technological hurdle is disjointed development efforts by the robotics companies.
“The largest technology-related challenge across the entire sector is the lack of common technology platforms and interoperability among agricultural robot devices and systems,” Wheelock said. “Agricultural technology companies are currently pursuing product development in a fragmented way, with little to no collaboration on enabling technologies, which we believe is a major inhibitor.”
This fragmentation extends to positioning systems, used to determine the location of a robot, Tractica reported. While GPS is the de facto standard as an outdoor positioning infrastructure, the current state of GPS is proving to be insufficient. Other methods for positioning using machine vision, lasers, magnetic compasses, optical, wave-radar, model matching and beacons, or artificial landmarks. Many of these technologies are still in the R&D phase, according to Tractica, including hybrid positioning systems, and are not mature enough for real-time outdoor applications.
Robotics manufacturers are focusing their development efforts on several types of agricultural machinery, including:
As with autonomous cars, driverless tractors are programmed to navigate, understand their position, determine speed, and avoid people, animals and other objects. Tractica said that most autonomous tractors navigate using lasers that bounce signals off mobile transponders located around the field. Automation software also is used to manage the tractor’s path and controls by using GPS and radio feedback.
“The average selling price of driverless tractors will be quite high in the early years, so the units will be most effective for large industrial farm operations,” Wheelock said. “We estimate that it will probably take about 10 years for driverless tractors to make more economic sense for smaller farmer,” adding that driverless tractors with limited autonomous capabilities will become increasingly prevalent in lower-end tractors, “so there is a spectrum of autonomy between traditional tractors and full driverless tractors that will benefit some small farmers in the meantime.”
Tractica reports a sharp increase in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for crop surveillance, drastically increasing crop yields while minimizing walking the fields or airplane fly-over filming. UAVs are deployed for remote sensing, aerial photography, videography, photo mapping, soil map creation, crop health condition monitoring, spraying of chemicals, crop dusting and materials protection. Simple to use and integrate with cloud-based data analytics, drones are quickly becoming a popular choice among growers.
“UAVs enable farmers to use chemicals and water on the crop more judiciously,” Tractica reported. “Apart from regular growers, aerial surveys are in demand by seed and fertilizer manufacturers to boost their sales by doing a free aerial analysis of customers’ farms. Despite regulatory restrictions on the use of agricultural drones in some regions, the sector is attracting more money and becoming more crowded every day.”
This includes tilling, weeding, fertilizing and managing soil nutrients. Tractica said precise tilling by autonomous robots has strong potential because farmers are constantly beset by weeds, which consume the nutrients intended for crops use and damage crop yields. Weeding robots are in development that destroy weeks by pulling them out of the ground, directing lasers or microwaves at them or spraying them with herbicides. New soil management tools also can reduce the overuse of fertilizers, which is costly and environmentally harmful. Robots are under development that will apply fertilizer at the right location, while the plant is rapidly growing.
While there is concern that agricultural robots will take jobs from farm workers, Tractica argues that the benefits of agricultural automation outweigh the disadvantages.
“There is certainly a degree to which driverless tractors and other agricultural robots will replace farm workers,” Wheelock said. “Perhaps more significant, however, is the benefit that such technology will have in terms of closing the large gap between the demand for and supply of farm workers. The global agriculture sector faces significant challenges with regard to an aging workforce and, even in developing countries, there is a massive population drain in rural areas and a worsening shortage of farm labor, even with a tangible increase in salaries. Agricultural robots will be a major boon in closing these gaps while continuing to increase agricultural productivity to serve the world’s growing demand for food.”
Having said that, Wheelock said Tractica anticipates driverless tractors will stay below 10 percent of total tractor sales through 2024 due to price sensitivity and long replacement cycles. “Autonomous tractors will continue to grow their share in the total tractor market,” he said, “but it is likely to be a matter of decades before they could truly be called the norm.”