Let’s start with robots for smallholder farms

Pekkeriet
Erik Pekkeriet Programme Manager AGRO Food Robotics at Wageningen University & Research
Why only think about robotisation on huge farms? Small robots for smallholders could be the way to go. - Photo: Naïo Technologies
Why only think about robotisation on huge farms? Small robots for smallholders could be the way to go. - Photo: Naïo Technologies

With expected growth of the global population, we will need to robotise 2 billion workers to feed our urban societies in the coming 20 years. How do we innovate a way out of this?

As Programme Manager Agro Food Robotics at Wageningen University & Research I like to see robotic systems on farms. A robot should equip the farmer and his stakeholders to achieve two main goals. First it should relieve the farmer of repetitive daily operations that are time consuming but do not add very much value. Secondly, robots should contribute to a more sustainable mode of production.

Less farmworkers available

In the world there are 2 billion farmworkers. That’s 25% of the global working population. In Europe, US, Australia and parts of Asia this percentage has already been reduced to 5-8%. And China expects that by 2042 only 5% of the population will be farmworkers. Due to the growth of urban societies, farmworkers will be less available, need to be sourced further from home and we already see some ageing of farmworkers and farm owners and a younger population moving to IT-driven jobs in urban societies.

With expected growth of the global population, we will need to robotise 2 billion workers to feed our urban societies in the coming 20 years. How do we innovate a way out of this? This is certainly the biggest robotic market in the world.

Smallholder farms the biggest market

Most farms are smallholdings. These are farms up to 5 ha with an annual turnover of just US$ 8.000 -10.000 max. There is the biggest market. It sounds impossible now, but it’s an worthwhile challenge to build convenient, simple, robust and fully autonomous systems for this market. One small multi-task robot per farm, a set of sensors, a drone in a box and operation by the app and data-processing in the cloud should do the job. No complex fleet management, traffic control or big processing facilities.

If this works properly, then it will also be scalable to larger farms. Or to multiple smaller farms that enable city farming in urbanised areas.

Some unconventional thinking is sometimes needed to shape a new, simple food producing world. Big farms are sometimes also a bit risky: the impact of large pest and disease outbreaks, not securing biodiversity, impoverishment, poor local circularity. Don’t always think in terms of big farms! But big dreams are fine.

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