How Can Robotics, Automation and Data Change the Way Farmers Produce Food? 

Robotics and automation backed by A.I., machine learning and data are set to revolutionise the way we produce food. The world population is growing fast and the need for food is even greater than ever before.

Benji Meltzer, Co-Founder and CTO at Aerobotics

New technologies are emerging with the demand for agricultural robots (agbots) seeing an increase of 24.1% until 2024, according to Transparency Market Research. Agricultural robots can be used to both collect data at scale and apply more targeted treatment in an autonomous and scalable manner.

Benji Meltzer, Co-Founder and CTO at AEROBOTICS, says: “In the remote sensing space, robotic technology is primarily advancing through innovations in the satellite and drone imagery fields. As more satellites are deployed, with better sensing technology such as higher spatial and spectral resolutions, we can access data cost-effectively and at scale.”

Aerobotics leverages drone technology to achieve higher spatial resolution and more real-time imagery, to help farmers identify problems on a granular basis. There are also significant advances in the in-field sensing space (e.g. soil moisture probes), enabling regular and objective in-field measurements.

Meltzer adds: “Apart from crop monitoring, agricultural robots are being used for manipulation, through targeted treatment (e.g. variable rate spraying) and automation in harvesting. These actions generally use the crop-monitoring data as an input, closing the precision agriculture loop in moving towards an automated farm.”

The sector has seen a wave of cutting-edge robotic technologies in recent years. Cambridge University has developed a lettuce-picking robot, the first step towards automation for delicate fruit and veg. Root AI’s Virgo robot is successfully designed to pick tomatoes with a camera and uses artificial intelligence software to analyse whether the tomato is ripe. In China, the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and Fujian Newland Era Hi-Tech Co have introduced the first farming robot to develop an autonomous farm with 12 cameras and 5G mobile communication technology. With AI algorithms that are being developed, the robot can use the data to determine plant health and pest control conditions.

It’s an exciting time for the industry to seize opportunities in digital agri-tech and harness the power of data to make smarter and faster decisions with farmers. Machine and equipment manufacturers are looking to collaborate with technology companies and start-ups, with John Deere acquiring Blue River Technology for $305m in 2017, while DuPont paid $300m to acquire Granular.

Niall Mottram, Head of Product Development, Industrial & Energy at Cambridge Consultants

Niall Mottram, Head of Product Development, Industrial & Energy at CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, says: “What will really transform food production is more granular data; information about individual plants, not an acre of wheat treated as a single entity. With more granular data we’ll be able to optimise yields, growing more per acre while using less input by volume or weight (water, fertilisers, pesticides). We can already see this shift in mindset from the main agrochemical suppliers who all have their own digital farming teams working on this challenge.”

AgFunder’s 2019 investing report revealed that rapid development of robotic technologies across farm robotics and equipment increased 56% year-over-year across 83 deals.

There are still challenges ahead facing robotics and automation in the agricultural sector and Meltzer explains how this will impact farmers. “I believe that the biggest challenge in the space is a lack of infrastructure. Limited connectivity on farms as well as accessibility, can hinder these systems working reliably in the wild. In certain crops and geographies, the existing supply chain consists of mostly manual and non-digital processes which also makes it difficult to integrate.”

At the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London, October 15-16 senior industry thought leaders will discuss how farmers can adopt robotics and automation technologies and take advantage of data driven solutions to advance food production in the agricultural space:

Deep Dive: Automation in Next Gen Food Production
Session Chair: Arama Kukutai, Managing Partner, FINISTERE VENTURES, USA

  • Gaetan Severac, Co-Founder, NAIO TECHNOLOGIES, FRANCE
  • Niall Mottram, Head of Product Development, Industrial & Energy, CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS, UK
  • Benji Meltzer, Co-Founder & CTO, AEROBOTICS, SOUTH AFRICA
  • Chris Rhodes, Director, Global Fuse Business Development, AGCO, USA