In 10 to 20 years from now, robots will do all the repetitive work in the agricultural sector, says Erik Pekkeriet of Wageningen University & Research.
In his weblog Pekkeriet argues that due to mechanisation, agricultural work has become more monotonous and difficult.
“The work used to be varied and people were able to stop and chat with each other. Now they work by themselves or together in noisy rooms with ear plugs and protective clothing. Social interaction is barely possible and people do the same thing all day long. The human component of the work is very monotonous and extremely repetitive,” Pekkeriet says.
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According to Pekkeriet, people have become a “kind of machine”. “Only their productivity matters. Software measures exactly how much someone harvests, processes, or packages. Many businesses hang “green/white/red” lists in the break rooms. Employees in the green row are performing well and will receive a bonus, those in the white row are acceptable, and those who spend 2 weeks in the red row will have to find a different job. That puts a lot of pressure on the employees.”
Besides, the working conditions are not what you would call comfortable, says the researcher. “The temperature and humidity in greenhouses is high. Out in the fields, employees may spend the entire day in the burning sun. Packing work is done in freezing cold rooms, so that the products have a longer shelf life.”
That’s why it’s getting more and more difficult to hire people to do this kind of work. The Dutch agricultural sector for instance has for a long time relied heavily on Polish workers, but many Polish workers – up till one quarter of the Polish workforce in the Dutch ag sector according to Pekkeriet – have turned their backs on the agricultural sector. It’s a worldwide problem, in many countries the agricultural sector is faced with graying farmers.
The answer according to WUR: robots. Wageningen researchers are developing robots that can do agricultural work, such as weeding, harvesting, and packing, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
In Wageningen, roughly 60 researchers are involved in the development of robots that can perform agricultural work such as weeding, harvesting, and packing. Autodidactic systems, spectral camera technologies and robot hands are also being developed.
Pekkeriet: “With the use of cameras and sensors, motorised robot platforms and hands are more precise than human beings. They can collect all manner of data regarding time and place and can even detect diseases and pests.”
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“If there are pests on the crop, it can be difficult for us to see whether there are more or less of them after 3 days. A robot can do that exceptionally well and can also check more often”, explains Pekkeriet. Furthermore, the robot can locally control or treat the pests or disease, which means decreased use of pesticides.
“In the agriculture and food industries, the use of robots is very promising”, says Pekkeriet. He expects that they’ll be doing all the menial, repetitive work in 10 to 20 years from now. “Since a robot can work day and night and can last for several years, they will soon be appropriate and affordable for smaller-scale farmers. Robots make it possible to achieve higher production. They work 24/7 too, so it is not a problem if they work a bit slower than people.”