A study related to the UK’s Hands Free autonomous farming project shows that wheat production costs can go down with $?23 to $?46 per ton if the entire production is done autonomously with a swarm of small robot tractors and vehicles.
Kit Franklin, Agricultural Engineering lecturer at Harper Adams University (UK) and actively involved in the UK’s pioneering Hands Free autonomous farming project, recently spoke at the virtual online annual congress of the Dutch society for agricultural engineering. He explained how swarm robotics has the potential to radically change the economies of size in agriculture and how this can impact farm size and structure.
“For the past decades, reduced availability of labour, limited time windows and one-man ownership farms have led to larger and larger machines. These larger and heavier machines have resulted in less precise applications and increasing soil compaction limiting yield. Since the year 2000, the UK has a flat line on its wheat yields. The increase has stagnated and that is often caused by compaction”, Franklin said.
“So, if we don’t need somebody sit on every single one of our machines, those machines can be a lot smaller and we can have many of them, swarms. The smaller scale will increase their precision and lower the impact on the soil and when operating in swarms, they can cover the same area as traditional larger machines. Former tractor operators can then monitor the swarms so no jobs are cut.”
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Franklin went on to explain that partly due to the use of cheap open-source technology, it only costed $ 14,000 to make their Iseki tractor autonomous. “And you can include a drone for that.” Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, the Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics at Harper Adams et al conducted an economic outputs study in relation to the project.
The study shows that robotic grain production is technically and economically feasible. An analysis suggests that robotic production allows medium size farms to approach minimum per unit production cost levels.
Compared to farming with one 38 hp tractor on a 59-ha arable area/farm size, farming with an autonomous equivalent can lower the production costs of wheat from $ 234 to $ 187 per metric ton. A decrease of $ 46! On larger farms, for instance a 450-ha farm where a 300 hp tractor with conventional equipment would typically do the job at production costs of $ 184/ton of wheat, a swarm of three autonomous 38 hp tractors and equipment can do the same job and produce wheat at a total cost of $ 162/ton. Still savings of $ 23/ton.
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The study related to the Hands Free autonomous farming project shows that the ability to achieve minimum production costs at relatively small farm size means that the pressure to ‘get big or get out’ will diminish. “We’ve made small farms profitable and that is a really critical advance”, Franklin said.
Costs of production that are internationally competitive will mean reduced need for government subsidies and greater independence for farmers. The ability of swarm robotics to achieve minimum production costs even on small, irregularly shaped fields will reduce pressure to tear out hedges, cut infield trees and enlarge fields.