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Farm robots – From Science Fiction to Agricultural Labour Solutions

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While manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies trumpet their achievements in pushing back the boundaries of technology, global agriculture continues to make less heralded but equally significant innovations.

This includes developing new ways to use Artificial Intelligence and Automation, to provide faster, less labour intensive and more profitable production methods.

For some, technology in farming is still largely viewed as peaking from mechanised equipment and the use of drones. However, it is becoming clear that the potential to combine AI and farming is vast.

Speaking in preparation for attending June’s prestigious Royal Highland Show, UK Government Minister Lord Duncan summed it up.

He said: “Agriculture is part of the lifeblood of the UK. It feeds us, fuels us, pumps in billions of pounds to the UK economy, and supports nearly 400,000 jobs in Scotland alone. Indeed 80% of Scotland’s land mass is involved in agricultural production.

“It is also an area which is at the cutting edge of science and technology. Anyone who thinks that farming is tweedy and dusty would be astounded at the level of technology and scientific precision involved in modern day agriculture. From robotics to genetics and feeding the world, the UK is a pioneer in technological innovation.”

Robots on the horizon

So, what place do robotics have on modern farms and how will they impact on agricultural jobs?

As with many other sectors of business and industry, it’s a myth that automation is creating mass unemployment. In farming recruitment, as in other sectors, it is creating a shift in emphasis, and a focus on new skilled agricultural machinery jobs.

There is also hunger for people with the vision and skills to bring AI projects to fruition.

Automation and robotics are being developed for farms to carry out much of the mundane and physically demanding work, that provides a recruitment headache for farmers, especially at harvesting peaks.

For this reason, much of the relevant emerging tech involves machinery to carry out weeding, seeding and pruning. As well as solving what is an increasingly serious shortfall in labour, reliance on this sort of equipment would free up the farmer’s time to spend on business development and diversification tasks.

Over in the USA, successful trials have been completed with strawberry harvesting equipment that negates the need for dozens of seasonal pickers. In America, this is deemed vital as immigrant labour is now in a massive deficit.

Another example from the States is trials by Israeli firm FFRobotics to use automated harvesting equipment in Washington apple orchards. FFRobotics has reported that the equipment could “precisely and gently pick ten times more usable fruit compared with an average worker.”

(source: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/08/wave-of-agriculture-robotics-holds-potential-to-ease-farm-labor-crunch.html)

However, much of this US innovation has focused on California. This state is not only home to Silicon Valley but it is also responsible for $45 billion worth of agriculture. It produces around 50% of the USA’s fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Robotic test projects in California have featured small machines that can pass around crops tackling weeds, for example.

One of the massive advantages of such AI operated machines is that they can function around the clock, even in conditions that traditional farm equipment may struggle with. They also produce highly precise and consistent results. Which also means the potential for far higher agricultural yields due to more careful harvesting, as claimed by the apple picker from FFRobotics.

Ample backing for agricultural automation

Fortunately for the agricultural sector, developments previously dismissed as science fiction or unfeasibly expensive, are becoming a practical reality.

This is because the money to invest in this type of technology is now readily available. Big global investors are willing to speculate on developing AI projects that could solve worldwide production, health and environmental issues.

However, one of the biggest “driving” forces behind such developments is of course the automobile industry. The worldwide race to go into production on the first “driverless car” continues, despite initial setbacks such as the tragic loss of life in an Uber trial in Arizona.

The work on Connected and Autonomous Vehicles creates synergy for agricultural innovation too. The sensors and learnt-programming that can drive cars around safely, can also be applied to farm equipment able to negotiate around hurdles and crops, to deliver vital repetitive functions.

This means agriculture benefits not only from its own inward investment, but also the massive amount of money being ploughed in to AI generally.

The perfect example of this synergy is the fact both John Deere and Case New Holland are currently testing autonomous tractors.

Nor is the only impetus for agricultural robotics and automation coming entirely from profit-led enterprises.

Universities across the globe are joining forces with industry, pharmaceutical companies and agricultural bodies to become a hotbed of AI applications. This helps to provide a much needed increase in graduates with relevant science, technology, engineering and maths qualifications.

Backed on so many fronts, automation and robotics are going to continue to gain considerable traction.

In their report “Global Artificial Intelligence Study: Exploiting the AI Revolution” PwC call robotics the “$15.7 trillion game changer”, as that’s the projected value AI technology will have by 2030.

(source: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/data-and-analytics/publications/artificial-intelligence-study.html)

Growing, not replacing agricultural and farming jobs

As mentioned, much of the benefit of using automated farm equipment hinges on mundane, physically punishing and repetitive work that creates hard to fill seasonal vacancies.

Conversely, employment in agriculture is likely to receive a boost as a result of farming enterprises becoming more productive and viable long term, from exploiting the opportunities provided by new technology.

Robotics equipment that requires no human support of any kind is clearly still a far-fetched notion. Agriculture will continue to need engineers and operators to supervise automated processes.

Indeed, the starting point for many agricultural enterprises will be finding management personnel with sufficient insight and acumen to source the right AI driven concepts.

Agricultural firms who are already embracing mechanical processes in their operations are clearly ahead of the game. They are already willing to invest in the latest equipment but also in agricultural recruits with an engineering or technical background.

The early innovators and adaptors look set to cash in on their ambition.

Returning to California for an example, one agricultural organisation invested $750,000 in a mechanical lettuce harvester that uses water jets to cut, avoiding the use of blades and repetitive labour. The organisation reports that this equipment paid for itself within 12 months due to the size of its farming operations.

(source: https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/08/wave-of-agriculture-robotics-holds-potential-to-ease-farm-labor-crunch.html)

The rise of robotics and automation in agriculture is unstoppable and exciting. We would be pleased to look at your agricultural recruitment in terms of people with the skills to develop and implement technological advancement.

Here at Agriculture Recruitment Specialists, we are experts in the many changes taking place in the agricultural industry. If you are looking to prepare your business for the future by securing the best talent, we can manage the recruitment process for every industry involved in the food and rural sectors, throughout the UK, Europe and across the world. To find out more about our services, please contact our recruitment professionals today.

If you are looking to progress your career, Agricultural Recruitment Specialists are the worldwide recruitment leader in agricultural, food, farming and rural recruitment and have a variety of executive and management positions available within agriculture, horticulture and the food and rural sectors throughout the UK and the rest of the world. To find out more about our agricultural job vacancies and discuss your future career, contact our team of agricultural recruitment professionals. You can visit our website here: www.agriRS.co.uk or call our team on: 01905 345 155 or email us at: info@agriRS.co.uk

Alternatively, if you are a client looking to expand your team, whilst using a professional recruitment / headhunting solution, then please call us today on 01905 345155 or email us at: info@agriRS.co.uk