The idea of robotics in agriculture has long intrigued me. It is an area I have long anticipated will change how farmers farm, although in some respects the impact to date has been less than I would have anticipated had I been asked even a decade ago.
However, I suspect we are now very much on the cusp of some dramatic innovation in terms of robotic farming.
That is not surprising in the sense we have seen robots used in manufacturing for many years now, albeit they grow more sophisticated all the time. They tend to work well in an assembly line atmosphere with repetitive work elements handled by a computer program, whether that is welding spots on an automobile frame, or carrying out elements of dairy milking parlours.
But, robots are now becoming more advanced, meaning they are no longer restricted to stationary work stations.
Movement of robots is growing exponentially and that is opening up new opportunities to employ the technology.
We see automobiles now able to park themselves. Drivers simply give over control of the car to a computer and in the broadest terms the car becomes robotic. While questions regarding driver insurance and liability would seem to still be defined, it is not hard to envision a car being able to drive it- self down the street to the grocery store, or workplace, with the former driver simply becoming a passenger. It is likely the technology is close, if not already possible.
We have also heard the desire by Amazon.com to turn to flying drones for package delivery.
While that might be more crystal-balling at this point than a viable option, such drones would need to be highly autonomous in their actions to be useable for such deliveries. Of course what makes both self-driving cars and delivery drones more reality than science fiction is the element of global positioning technology.
The use of GPS is something farmers are more than a little familiar with as it is a key element of precision farming in terms of spraying and fertilizing to the specific requirements of specific areas of a field.
Moving forward it is going to be GPS in tandem with robotics which has farm machinery crawling across fields monitored by a farmer sitting at a desk at home. Today we see the ability of a farmer to utilize a driverless tractor pulling a grain cart across a field, its movement controlled by a computer on a combine, keeping the cart on a synchronous path.
The combine itself can actually travel down a field following a swath with little, or no steering from the driver.
The next steps in technology will take operators out of the tractor seat and into a role of monitor, pulling the plug from afar if a problem arises.
With farm employees harder to find based on the increasing tech training they require to operate modern farm equipment, and the costs associated with such labour, robotics machinery is going to find eager tech-adopters among farmers.
The cost saving in terms of labour and the ability of machines to operate longer hours because operator fatigue is eliminated as a limiting factor make the upcoming developments big in terms of farm efficiency and bottom line.
The farm may not seem like the most likely place for robots to get an early foothold outside a factory setting, but that is very likely to be the case.