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Automation and Robotics in Agriculture

Technology and innovation are an important part of everyday life, and agriculture especially relies on technology within a land- and labour-intensive industry to create more efficient systems of production. These advancements tackle challenges such as feeding a growing population (9.8 billion by 2050),(1) economic success, and sustainability.

Annually, 20–40 per cent of crops are lost to pests or disease,(2) and technologies such as robotics, precision farming, and biotechnology can help make the food we grow or raise more resilient. Precision farming alone could reduce farming costs by $100 billion and save 180 billion cubic metres of water by 2030.(3) Other technologies like blockchain and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) can improve traceability and create a safer and more reliable food supply chain. As technologies enter the market and advance the agriculture industry, new job opportunities are also arising. Jobs in machine maintenance and programming are beginning to replace more labour-intensive jobs, attracting a younger, more tech-savvy generation.

The agricultural revolution from 1752–1900 radically changed North America with the introduction of machines. The cotton gin was patented in 1794, revolutionizing the industry by saving hundreds of man-hours and quickening the process of separating cottonseed from cotton fibre. The machine could produce as much as 50 lb. of cotton in a single day and was extremely cost saving.(4)

Another major development in machinery came with the innovation of putting steam engines on wheels in the early 1800s. This led to the first gasoline-powered tractor in 1892(5) and sparked a wave of advancements in farming devices and implements.

What is considered to be robotics today (the integration of computer science and engineering) was first introduced in the 1920s, with research on automatic vehicles continuing through the ’50s and ’60s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that computers and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies developed enough to give robots the vision and guidance they needed to make a large impact in the industry.(6)

Through the use of sensors, smart cameras, and GPS, machines can now avoid obstacles, as well as locate, identify, and detect changes in crops. This allows them to perform tasks such as monitoring plant growth, picking weeds, harvesting, sorting, and packing.(7)

Unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs), like drones, also take advantage of this technology, providing farmers with an aerial view of their land. By checking in on their fields from the sky, farmers can save on the gas and labour costs that would have been required to drive down to a problem spot and check it out on foot.

Did You Know?

Labour shortages due to COVID-19 could see agricultural robot sales increasing by 30% in 2021.(8)

Different types of camera sensors can be used on drones to provide farmers with a variety of information. Thermal infrared cameras, for instance, measure the temperature of the earth, informing the farmer how much moisture is in the soil. This data allows the farmer to determine where irrigation is most needed. Multispectral camera sensors detect four different bands of light: red, green, blue, and near-infrared that reflect off the fields. Healthy plants should reflect green light since this is what makes plants appear the colour green to our eyes. Near-infrared light, while undetectable to the human eye, also helps determine plant health as high reflectance of near-infrared indicates healthy chlorophyll levels in plants.(9) In the future, building completely autonomous drones can have them making runs and collecting data without the need for human assistance.

Did You Know?

20%­–40% of crops are lost to pests and disease each year.(2)

Autonomous pickers can harvest crops like strawberries twice as fast as humans. A future where one robot can switch between multiple different kinds of crops will increase efficiency and pair better with best practices like crop rotations, when the type of crop planted in a field changes every growing season.(2)

Autonomous—“A device capable of operating with little or no human control.”(10)

For complete automation to be possible, robotics need to be instilled with artificial intelligence (AI). AIs are the artificial brains behind the engineered equipment, allowing a robot to learn from its environment. Currently, AIs are used for image recognition, helping to spot drought, pests, or disease affected plants. Their detection accuracy is 98 per cent,(11) sending out immediate alerts to the farmer’s smart device.

Robotics is also used within livestock farming. In the dairy industry, the first robotic milking system was invented in Europe and became available to the market in 1992. Modern robotic milking systems are now a voluntary process that allows cows to determine their own milking schedules. Cows are equipped with electronic collars that tell the robot which cow it is, whether or not she needs to be milked, and how healthy she is based on her milk production. The robot cleans the cow’s teats, automatically attaches, and collects data on the quality and quantity of milk. Fewer interactions with humans allows the milking process to be less stressful for the cows and ultimately produces more milk with less labour.(12)

Did You Know?

9.8 billion is the estimated population by 2050.(1)

Other robots, like feed pushers, run along the feed alley found in freestall barns, pushing the feed closer to the cows. While the feed is originally dispensed close, as cows eat, the feed

gradually gets spread out of reach, and a farmer has to come every few hours to push it closer. With robotic feed pushers, however, feed is always within a cow’s reach, as the machine continues to run throughout the night. This saves the farmer up to 180 man-hours a year.(13) It is important cows are able to eat as much as they want, as it increases milk production.

From livestock farming to crop farming, there are many applications for robots in the agriculture industry. While some autonomous devices are still being implemented, the future

will see even more robots in the field and barn as these systems become more affordable. The efficiency they offer in the long run boosts productivity and improves incomes, animal welfare,

and sustainability. The agricultural robots market is expected to reach $20.3 billion by 2025.(14)

For more information on agriculture technology explore our Nourishing Minds publications here.


2 TDC—The Future of Farming, 2017

4 History—Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney, 2019

5 Wikipedia—Tractor, 2020

6 Wikipedia—Agricultural Robot, 2020

8 International Federation of Robotics—Case Studies, 2021

10 Oxford Languages—Autonomous Definition, 2021

12 Michigan State University—Robotic Milking

13 Lely—Lely Juno

14 Markets and Markets—Agricultural Robots Market


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