While robots in the livestock sector have been established for some time, arable farming is yet to see similar developments.
Robots: For some a dystopian science fiction made real, but in agriculture they represent a venture into increased productivity, improved efficiencies and a revolution in technical accuracy.
In the livestock sector, robots have been established for some time, doing the milking, feeding and cleaning, says Ulrich Adam, CEMA secretary general.
“However, while automation of arable farm machines is increasing year-on-year, we have not seen a similar development to fully robotic systems in arable farming yet.”
One imminent addition to the arable arsenal will be in the form of weeding robots, says Simon Pearson, professor of agri-food technology at the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Tech.
“These are coming through as a way to control weeds as herbicides decline.” Though these are mostly for field vegetables and root crops, as the technology develops they will become more applicable to arable crops.
Using camera guidance systems the robots identify the crops and hoe around them.
“The next generation will identify the weed as separate to the crop, so the proportion of weeds killed will increase,” explains Prof Pearson.
There are also ideas around laser weeding. Fleets of autonomous robots are also in the development pipeline. “These will work together to tackle a problem, communicating to interact safely,” he says.
There are projects on autonomous small robots which can support fruit pickers and it could be lots of small robots replace one large tractor.
“This is about two to three years away from being developed.”
Autonomous vehicles, from forklifts to tractors, which are electronically-driven, are already in use. Tractors are largely still in development but are in use in the US, while in the UK there is an issue around health and safety, explains Prof Pearson.
“There is no doubt they are coming though. As driverless cars improve, there will be more autonomous technology which comes into agriculture.” With the development of robotics, human and robot interaction is likely to alter. Robots are being developed to do mundane work, while more complicated tasks are left to the human worker, he says.
“This could be in spraying crops, where a camera on the sprayer may encounter something unusual and the treatment can then be changed by a human decision. Collaboration will be a big thing but it will require training.
A person will be needed to make sure things are running properly and to optimise the system in conjunction with the robot.”
From a labour perspective, robots are clearly a very promising solution, not a threat, adds Mr Adam.
“Nobody needs to be afraid robots will create mass unemployment in farming.”
Further developments will see sensing robots which collect information. “Drones are all part of this solution,” says Prof Pearson.
“Robots are in development which can measure compaction, moisture, chemistry, crop growth, pests and disease.
“Beyond this, the next stage is for complicated command systems,” he adds.
“From unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones, to sensors in tractors and fields – not one of these will tell the farmer everything which is happening. So control systems will be developed to combine multiple forms of technology and this will not take long to happen.”
Though there is an ever-increasing amount of field and farm knowledge available through robotics there will always need to be somebody to make the key decisions, says Prof Pearson.
“Utilising the technology will help to increase the accuracy of these decisions.”
Despite the mature stage of robotic development, structural barriers for commercial launches remain high, says Mr Adam.
“Small robot swarms could, in the long run, replace certain conventional application steps in arable farming such as plant protection or fertilisation.”
However, large machines will still be needed for soil preparation and harvesting, which will be highly automised but not necessarily robotic.
This could make the scaling up of robotic sales difficult, he adds.
“But once a certain uptake level is reached, positive pricing dynamics are likely to support deployment.”