‘Unlocking the full potential of autonomous agriculture robots’

Alastair MacLeod Alastair MacLeod is CEO of Ground Control
Photo's: Ground Control
Photo's: Ground Control

Autonomous Agriculture Robots (AARs), including drones and autonomous tractors, have become increasingly popular tools in the agricultural industry, with a recent report valuing the global autonomous farm equipment market at $62.89 billion.

The same report predicted that the market value would reach $250.6 million by 2028, indicating a significant growth opportunity for manufacturers. Subsequently, this ambitious growth is receiving widespread attention and investment. SwarmFarm Robotics recently raised AUD 12 million ($8 million USD) and Saga Robotics €9.5 million ($10.2 million USD) respectively, via international investors. But what is the true value to Ag operators?

True value of promises

AARs have the potential to transform the way food is produced, processed, and distributed. Using AARs Ag operators can unlock new efficiencies that improve crop yields and worker safety, while reducing waste and overall environmental impact. However, the true value of this promise depends on several factors, including the specific use case, the technology involved, and the overall economic and regulatory landscape.

Growers were able to improve yields and reduce waste

In one such use case, Augean Robotics Inc. developed a collaborative robot called Burro. Burro was created to assist grape harvest crews moving picked grapes from the field to the truck. In a recent field trial, a crew member was tasked with optimizing the use of the Burro, which resulted in a 15% to 30% increase in overall crew efficiency. The Burro manager was paid the same as if they were performing picking operations – a model which is becoming increasingly popular with Ag operators utilizing these machines – and growers were able to improve yields and reduce waste.

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Photo taken at recent special interest group Accelerating Robot.
Photo taken at recent special interest group Accelerating Robot.

New technology AARs face challenges

But as is the case with any new technology AARs face challenges, not least, functionality. Reported functionality issues impact in two main ways. First, though machines can excel at simple, repetitive tasks, advanced technologies requiring more complex algorithms can pose challenges. For example, mission-planning software may send a robot on a mission it can’t complete, like navigating a specific turn in the field. Although users know the robot can navigate the turn, the software may have built-in safety protocols that prevent this.

Second is connectivity. According to Rohan Rainbow of Grain Producers Australia, more than half of the farmers in Australia have no access to cellular phone connectivity, which can pose a challenge when it comes to servicing or diagnosing AARs in the field.

Collaboration between innovators, manufacturers, farmers and connectivity specialists are required to ensure AARs operate autonomously and with maximum efficiency

Poor or no connectivity can be a major issue when AARs encounter obstacles. Without the connectivity to receive a command, the machine will sit still until the obstacle moves or the operator manually resets it. This can be time-consuming and can significantly reduce the efficiency gains that AARs are designed to deliver. Even in the UK, where users may expect good connectivity, farmers using AARs found that they had to go into the field roughly once every 10 hours to reset machines.

In both cases, collaboration between innovators, manufacturers, farmers and connectivity specialists are required to ensure AARs operate autonomously and with maximum efficiency.

Focus on customization

Finally, it’d be remiss to not address challenges related to capital outlay. While the benefits of AARs are significant, in many cases, so is their initial cost. There have been calls to build open-source common modular architecture to create several off-the-shelf components. Ultimately this would allow manufacturers, particularly startups, to focus on customization as opposed to building every component of each machine. This approach could also be easily applied to connectivity. A plug-and-play satellite-enabled solution could enable OEMs to expedite associated connectivity challenges. As we’ve seen time and time again, without connection, nothing is smart and only satellite connectivity can provide ubiquitous coverage.

By addressing these challenges head-on, manufacturers can help to unlock the full potential of AARs and ensure that they play a critical role in the future of agriculture.

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