In the crop-lined fields of the United States, the long-promised age of autonomous technology seems to have finally arrived.
A growing list of agricultural technology companies have already developed self-steering machines to, for example Distribute seeds for field cropsor harvest grapesor picking applesor distribute fertilizer. This innovation has seen some big investments: According to the latest data from venture capital firm AgFunder, companies are doing business in farm robotics receive Total investments of $491 million in the first half of fiscal 2021, a 40 percent increase over the same period in 2020.
Of course, all the attention given to these up-and-coming companies pales in comparison to January Notice John Deere, the heavy farm equipment mainstay, said it would release an autonomous version of its 8R tractor later this year. Since a majority of all farm equipment sold in the US is made by John Deere, its entry into the world of driverless tractors all but guarantees that autonomous technology is here to stay.
“A lot of advances are made by startups,” said Santosh Pitla, a professor of advanced machine systems at the University of Nebraska. “If you look at John Deere, they actually have products on the market.” In other words, decades of experience have helped the agricultural giant capture a lion’s share of the public’s attention — even if not everyone is necessarily optimistic about the technology.
Each agricultural technology company offers its own variant of autonomy. In the case of John Deere, the new 8R uses six pairs of cameras and an AI system to navigate without a driver. The system also takes real-time measurements of soil quality – something made possible by the 8R’s remote control capabilities.
“Autonomy isn’t just about working on a camera that recognizes things,” said Julian Sanchez, director of emerging technology at John Deere. “Autonomy means having the right connectivity tech stack so you can do over-the-air updates [and] remotely show a grower the status of the vehicle.” (This also means that John Deere will own the data, an issue that has not gone unnoticed by surveillance guards.)
However, as tempting as the 8R may be for large farms, it may be too expensive and impractical for smaller farms. This is where the smaller companies come in. Take Advanced Farm, a California-based company behind the TX Robotic Strawberry Harvester, which – as the name suggests – uses a robotic gripper to pick ripe strawberries from beds in the ground. The TX harvester is 12 feet wide and tips the scales at 3,000 pounds, making it more practical for a smaller farm than John Deere’s mega tractor (weight: around 28,000 pounds).
“We redesigned the tractor from the ground up to be much more energy efficient and therefore cost effective,” said Kyle Cobb, co-founder of Advanced Farm. “While we can’t do jobs that require a heavy load, we could do a number of jobs that don’t require all the steel and horsepower of traditional tractors.”
“I think it’s evil incarnate.”
— Harper Kieler
The companies that make these robots are unsurprisingly quick to sing their virtues. On the one hand, automated machines are more climate-friendly than their human-powered counterparts, partly because they are more efficient and therefore use less fuel.
Not everyone agrees on this front, however. “I think it’s evil incarnate,” said Harper Keeler, program director for urban agriculture at the University of Oregon. Keeler worries that autonomous technology will only strengthen America’s so-called monoculture food systems, in which farmers are encouraged to only grow one type of crop in a field at a time. It is an important form of agriculture in the US and critics like Keeler argue that it is not conducive to good soil health, reduces biodiversity, requires more water and pesticides than a polyculture system, and puts farmers at greater economic risk. Autonomous farming technology reduces costs and further fuels the trend towards monoculture farming.
“In times of climate change, this type of farming requires cutting down forests and perpetuates the myth that big farms are the only way to feed the world,” Keeler said. “This is bunk.”
Then there is the issue of work. Farms have been affected by growth for years labor shortage, triggered by the high physical demands of farm work, low wages and increased competition for jobs from local restaurants and warehouses. On this point, Sanchez referred to a US Department of Agriculture report the projected single-digit growth in the agricultural labor force. “Nobody else enters [the labor force], or when they enter, there is enough to leave,” he said. “And yet you still have to feed more people.”
A lot more people. The United Nations predicts that the world population will be affected 9.7 billion by 2050, a leap that would require a 70 percent increase in global food production, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. That goal will be nearly impossible to achieve without robotic workers, Sanchez said.
Still, there will certainly be growing pains, especially among the workforce. A shift towards self-propelled machines could well come at the expense of human labor (even with labor shortages, there are still about 3 million farm workers in the US according to the USDA, 73 percent of them are migrants). “We don’t see it right now [but] this is what we will see in the future: [robots] evicting our workers,” said Crescencio Diaz, president of Teamsters Local 890, a union representing farm workers in California’s agricultural Salinas Valley.
Cobb, co-founder of Advanced Farms, sees it differently. “We’re not replacing jobs,” he said. “We are actually supplementing this workforce for positions that cannot be filled at this time.” He raised an interesting analogue: before starting Advanced Farm, he founded a company, Greenbotics, which performed robotic cleaning of solar panels for utility-scale power plants. As Cobb says, Greenbotics helped create an entirely new class of workers: the robotic cleaning of solar panels technician.
“We don’t replace jobs. We are actually supplementing this workforce for positions that cannot currently be filled.”
— Kyle Cobb
“There are hundreds of these people around the world today who didn’t exist before, who have more earning potential than in previous positions, and who have unique skills that technology has allowed them to develop,” says Cobb called. “I think we’re going to see things similar to ag technology where people work alongside the equipment and become experts at using the equipment.”
Diaz, the president of Teamsters Local 890, reiterated that prediction, but with a solemn tone. “The only people who will keep jobs will be smart enough to run and fix the machines,” he said. “The other people will be expelled.”
https://www.thedailybeast.com/automated-machinery-built-by-john-deere-and-other-companies-is-disrupting-the-farming-industry?source=articles&via=rss Automated machines built by John Deere and other companies are disrupting the farming industry