Agricultural Robots: Robots in Agriculture and Farming

Agricultural Robots: Robots in Agriculture and Farming
External Guest Writer
March 2, 2021

After years of anticipation and heightened expectations, robotics has finally begun to enter the world of agriculture to make a difference in this crucial field. 

On its own, the robotics market has been booming for some time now, with an estimated value of USD 23.67 billion in 2020. This is expected to reach a staggering USD 74 billion by 2026, and a respectable portion of this growth will be dedicated to agricultural robots.

We look at the potential, usage, advantages, and disadvantages related to agricultural robots in our article below.

What Are Agricultural Robots?

Agricultural robots are specialized articles of technology that are capable of assisting farmers with a wide range of operations. They have the capability to analyze, contemplate, and carry out a multitude of functions, and they can be programmed to grow and evolve to match the needs of various tasks.

What Do They Do?

Agricultural Robots can be used for an incredible number of tasks to ease the burden on the farmers. Their primary role is to tackle labor-intensive, repetitive, and physically demanding tasks. In recent years, however, robots are being used for various specialized chores as well that were previously only tackled by experienced farmers. This includes the ability to pick out sensitive fruits and vegetables such as lettuce and strawberries.

Top Agricultural Robot Applications & Companies

There are numerous corporations and universities around the world that are deeply invested in agricultural robotics. Developments and breakthroughs in this segment are happening thick and fast, and this is why we list some of the major breakthroughs in the sections below.

Robots for Crop Harvesting

The physicality associated with crop harvesting has always been a troubling endeavor for farmers around the world, and this is why robotics is being utilized to reduce the demands of this task. This laborious and repetitive activity of farming is unavoidable as well, but the nature of the work makes it prime for robots to step in and take over.

The only real issue here has been concerning the manual dexterity required to pick various fruits and vegetables. Each type of produce has its own unique requirement and this requires tremendous amounts of research and mechanical expertise. 

Fruits, in particular, are known to bruise extremely easily, while leafy vegetables are susceptible to tears. Tackling this issue requires tremendous amounts of precision that need to be programmed into the robots who will be set to this task. Fortunately, a few big names are already stepping in to fill this immense void in agri-tech.

Cambridge University

One of the biggest names to be involved in this segment of robotics in agriculture is Cambridge University. They have created a unique robot known as “Vegebot”, and this is a prototype that relies on computer vision to achieve incredible accuracy when harvesting crops.

Cambridge University has specifically designed this robot to be able to pick lettuce plants — a task that was seen to be near-impossible for machines not too long ago.

The camera on the “Vegebot” allows it to scan the lettuce and detect if the particular plant is ripe for harvesting or not. Once it decides that the plant is ready to be picked, it uses a second camera that’s placed near the blade of the robot to guide its actions and execute it to perfection.

A machine-learning algorithm has also been utilized in the software of the “Vegebot” to help it detect the lettuce that is ripe and ideal for picking.

Although “Vegebot” can’t compete with the speed of human hands at its current stage, it bodes well for the agricultural community that this technology has made such rapid strides in very little time. If the robot can help harvest a delicate crop like lettuce, it can be doubly useful for tougher produce that isn’t prone to bruises and tears.

Harvest Croo

Harvest Croo is another big brand operating in the U.S.A that’s deeply tied into creating harvesting robots for challenging crops. They currently specialize in picking strawberries as these fruits are notoriously prone to damages during the harvesting season.

Their robot is called Berry 5, and it’s a culmination of various components instead of the single arms that’s traditionally used in robots in agriculture. These components can help Berry 5 carry out complex tasks such as grabbing the leaf of the strawberry bush, picking the strawberry delicately, and packing it away safely.

Much like the robot developed at Cambridge University, Berry 5 also relies on computer vision to help it differentiate between ripe and raw berries. Unlike the “Vegebot”, however, Berry 5 is extremely speedy in its execution. It’s capable of picking a strawberry bush in eight seconds and can move onto the next bush in an additional 1.5 seconds.

Berry 5 is being used in the fields of Florida and should be completely commercialized shortly.

Harvest Automation

Harvest Automation was founded by ex-employees of iRobot — the company responsible for the creation of the Roomba. Their primary product is called the HV-100 robot and its function centers on spacing various types of plants and container crops during the harvest season.

This technique is particularly useful for greenhouses as plants in this ecosystem need to be evenly spaced to prevent overlapping of growth and build resilience. 

The special feature of this robot is that it's capable of working in hostile conditions and nurseries that often grow specialty produce and ornamental plants.

Abundant Robotics

In order to ease the burden of picking fruits such as apples from orchards, Abundant Robotics has created a special vacuum robot that relies on some futuristic technology.

This robot also relies on computer vision and is capable of sorting out mature apples from the unripe ones. Once the robot has narrowed in on the right apples, it can gulp down the produce using a vacuum tube without causing any bruises to the fruit.

As the prototype stage of this robot was an enormous success, it has since been tested in the fields of New Zealand where it has seen excellent results.

Robots for Weed Removal

Weeds are the bane of farmers around the world which is why so much investment is being poured into creating robotics to solve this issue. These pesky crops are notoriously difficult to remove and are capable of even becoming resistant to weed killers over time.

Nexus Robotics is tackling this issue with its weed-removing autonomous robot. It’s known as R2Weed2 and it relies on artificial intelligence to differentiate between crops and weeds before yanking them out.

Naio technology is another similar brand that’s created weed-removal robots for vineyards specifically. This robot uses RTK satellite navigation to find its way through a farm and eliminate the pests on the property.

Robot Farming

This is the next logical step when it comes to robots in agriculture. Companies such as Iron Ox and Bowery Farming have created specialized robotic farms that are completely autonomous and are capable of growing a wide range of produce. 

These American tech giants can produce various leafy greens, herbs, and specialized fruits using technology such as hydroponic pods, vertical farming, artificial intelligence, and computer vision. In these scenarios, the farms are completely run by robots while humans are only responsible for supervision duties and routine maintenance checks.

Although this is still a revolutionary new idea being groomed in small pockets of the planet, there is no doubt that this is the future of agriculture.

Agricultural Robots: The Good and Bad

As agricultural robots are still being cautiously introduced in farmlands around the world, there is plenty of growth left to be achieved in this sector. We examine some of the positives and negatives associated with robots in agriculture in this section.

The Good

Robots are being utilized to help farmers and free them from physically demanding and time-intensive chores, thereby allowing them to take on other important roles with their spare time. This involves utilizing machine-learning algorithms, A.I, and UAVs to monitor their farms, make crucial decisions based on emerging data, and even stay one step ahead of future problems.

The Bad

As this technology is still in its nascent stage, it can be expensive to acquire for all farmers. Thus most robotics needs to be thoroughly tested and even reproduced on a large scale before it becomes affordable to farmers in developing and under-developed countries. 

Additionally, robotics is also a threat to a large number of daily wage workers who rely on jobs at farmlands for their living. If robotics replaces this industry, it can lead to an unemployment crisis as well.

Helping Hands

The entire purpose of robotics is to ease the physical burden on human beings in order to allow us to use our intellectual capabilities and maximize our abilities. Robots in agriculture can achieve exactly this on farms, thereby allowing farmers to strategize better with their space and eventually bring down the food shortage crisis for the global population.

More on smart farming: What are Agriculture Sensors?