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Farm 2026: The robots are coming

This week marks the start of our new series The Farm of 2026, a look at how the UK’s farming industry could benefit from technology and innovation. Marie-Claire Kidd reports on the robots which could change the way you farm.

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THE robots are coming. In fact, they are already here.

 

According to new research, robotics are already price-competitive with human workers in some cases, and falling costs over the next decade will open up more applications.

 

Lux Research of Boston, Massachusetts, said while cost remained a barrier, uptake was increasing.

 

This was a view shared by Sara Olson, analyst and lead author of Planting the Seeds of a Robot Revolution: How Autonomous Systems Are Integrating into Precision Agriculture.

 

She said: “Currently robots often aren’t affordable.

 

“However, the costs of many systems are coming down while wages rise due to labour shortages in some areas, and the benefits robots bring in the form of increased accuracy and precision will start to pay off in coming years.”


The report predicts automated lettuce growing will become the norm in Europe by 2028. Mechanical lettuce weeding is already competitive with human labour, thanks to regulatory limitations on agrochemicals, the report said.

 

Lettuce thinning is still done manually at lower cost, but robots are likely to reach break even with human labour within 12 years.


In Japan, crop spraying drones are increasingly common and a strawberry-harvesting robot costs about the same as a human worker when shared among multiple farms.

 

As strawberry picking is slow and labour-intensive, with labour scarce and expensive, and with the average Japanese agricultural worker aged over 70, the report states robots are likely to become the cheaper option soon.


In the US, autosteer systems for tractors and harvesters are proving cost-effective for some of the larger corn growers, having already achieved almost 10 per cent market penetration.

 

The report found the gap between the cost of human and autosteer or edrive-assisted labour in US corn farming was relatively small and it will become negligible by 2020.


Solving labour issues

For farmers worldwide, the rapid development of robotic and unmanned vehicle technology could mean fewer site visits, reduced labour costs, plus better collection and use of data.

 

It could also mean a growing number of highly trained farm managers and consultants able to run farms through an information and communication technology interface, with greater pressure on farm workers to be au fait with these systems.


Prof Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University, said programmable unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) will be mass produced in the UK within 10 years.

 

These lighter, low ground pressure vehicles minimise soil compaction, can work in wet weather without damaging soil and are able to attend parts of the farm larger tractors cannot reach. Small and medium-sized farms, which do not always benefit from economies of scale, have the most to gain.


Prof Blackmore said: “Mechanisation is getting bigger all the time due to driver costs. Doubling work rates keeps costs down, but we are reaching maximum size. It is good for large fields, but horsepower does not help when weight is the problem.”


Soil Association head of farming Liz Bowles said the use of drones and UGVs would reduce interference with the soil, preserving organic matter and microbiology.

 

She said: “I can see a situation on arable farms where you can get the kind of unmanned vehicle technology which is already on the market for cutting your lawn or cleaning your swimming pool with a range of different applications.


“If speed is not of the essence, an unmanned vehicle could go up and down the tram lines at its own pace. For example, an electric weeder could identify and electrocute weeds.” Unmanned vehicles can also be adapted to pull up weeds, zap them with lasers or spray them with targeted herbicides.


“If you divorce this from labour, it opens up a new set of opportunities.

 

“Once the technology is available the price will come down rapidly.”


Prof Blackmore said: “Up to 90 per cent of the energy going in to cultivation is there to repair the damage caused by machines.

 

Currently tractors are designed to pull large horizontal draught loads with big wheels at the back for a larger contact patch, cleats on tyres to help dig through the mud and weights on up front for weight transfer, but weight causes soil compaction.

 

Spacial control of machinery can save 10-15 per cent of time, fuel and inputs.”


Semi-skilled drivers will be replaced by unmanned vehicles in some cases, he said, but an equal number of highly skilled robot engineers will be needed, including many who will work on-farm.

 

While this is good news for research, innovation and engineering companies, the story for traditional farm workers differs. Commentators paint a picture of increasing labour costs, cheaper technology and a shift in the agricultural workload from people to machines.


Prof Blackmore, said despite the disruption to the labour market, farming and machinery industries, technologies such as UGVs are irresistible.

“I do not see any technological reason why we do not have them now,” he added.

The farm of 2026: the experts’ vision

Dave Ross, acting chief executive of the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre

 

“Unmanned aerial vehicles may have the ability not only to monitor crops but also to treat in future. There are legislative hurdles to overcome but one could envisage them operating autonomously.

 

Precision pesticide spraying with no surface vehicle compaction issues, as well as targeted treatment, reducing input cost, could be advantageous in the farm of the future.”

Liz Bowles, head of farming at the Soil Association

 

“We will have found much cleverer ways to remove weeds and we will be minimising tillage wherever possible.

 

This is not only the case with organic farming, it is also the direction of travel with the non-organic sector. We will be able to cultivate a field without turning soil over, preserving the soil microbiology.”

 

 

 

Camilla Hayselden-Ashby of Farm491, the Royal Agricultural University’s agri-tech incubation centre

 

“When most people imagine a farmer they picture an individual at the wheel of a tractor or out tending cows. What they may not be aware of is the tractor contains the technology to steer itself and the farmer has decided what treatment the crops need based on drone imagery of the fields.

 

It is about being smarter with what is available and helping to ensure food security, sustainability, health and better economic returns.”

At the cutting edge

The Government’s Agri-tech Catalyst is supporting a range of innovative projects


Automato aims to address the seasonal labour constraints in the UK and European tomato industry and their increasing cost. A cost-effective robotic system will inspect for quality and ripeness and harvest automatically.

 

Partners Sharp Laboratories of Europe, the Shadow Robot Company, Stockbridge Technology Centre Research Foundation, Thanet Growers Eight and Cornerways will combine knowledge of robotic arms, 3D sensing, pattern recognition and commercial greenhouse operations to develop a commercially available system.


The University of the West of England, Soil Essentials and Aralia Systems are developing a novel apparatus for automated spraying of herbicides to broad-leaf weeds in grass crops.

 

To reduce herbicide use, GrassVision will detect weeds using 3D machine vision techniques and use off-the-shelf machinery to spray a targeted area round each weed, decreasing herbicide use by an estimated 75 per cent.

 

The project will then refine the boom itself, which could achieve a 25sq.cm (10sq.in) spray area per weed, potentially reducing herbicide use by more than 90 per cent.

 

The University of Lincoln and Garford Farm Machinery are investigating the next generation of robotic weeding machinery. They propose a combination of low-cost 3D sensing and learning software, together with a suitable weed destruction technique.

 

More efficient cultural weeding equipment will mean better management of weeds and reduced input use, bringing benefits to food producers, sellers and society, they say.

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