Will agricultural robots arrive in time to keep fruit and vegetable costs down?

11 July 2014

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Grape pickers migrate from field to field in northern Mexico and California. Photo credit: Tomas Castelazo (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons.

77% of all agricultural workers in the US are foreign born and about half of those are undocumented1. These low-wage workers have helped keep American food prices reasonable – especially for growing, harvesting and processing fruits and vegetables.

Legal migrant farm labor is getting hard to find, wages are rising, and the workers less reliable. This isn’t just an American problem; it’s worldwide. 

David Lane, chair of the UK Technology Strategy Board’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) special interest group, said, “It’s important we don’t dilly-dally, because the race is on.”2

The race has been slow-going up until now. Farmers are very pragmatic and cost conscious. They have gradually moved toward precision agriculture (AKA satellite farming or site specific crop management (SSCM)). (Precision agriculture is farming management based on observing and responding to intra-field variations.) But they have not yet embraced robotics. They are beginning to experiment with data from aerial robots, kits that enable self-driving of tractors, and advanced GPS and communications systems, but for a variety of reasons have not moved past the experimental phase.

If and when new robotic products do their jobs efficiently, reliably and economically AND low-cost labor cannot be found, farmers will change their methods and begin to deploy robots. They haven’t needed to until now. The only real questions are (1) whether the robots will be funded, developed, field tested and produced in time, (2) will these new devices do their jobs properly and economically, or (3) will consumer prices need to rise to compensate for higher wages because no robots could be adapted to the work?

Here are some of the factors effecting change:

Migrant labor:

Use of robots:

  • Researchers are forecasting expansion of the agricultural robot market from $817 million in 2013 to an anticipated $16.3 billion by 20204
  • Robotic harvesting, irrigation, pruning, weeding and thinning devices are being field-tested all around the world
  • Robotic spraying and seeding have been going on in Japan and Australia for years
  • Driverless tractors are beginning to be deployed and provide less compaction than do traditional tractors
  • Robotic cow milking systems are making inroads in the US
  • Nurseries are beginning to use pick-and-place robots
  • Aerial observation robots will likely add to the precision of the global precision agricultural movement once FAA regulations are in place in late 2015
  • ABB, KUKA and Yaskawa have made little inroads in the industry although they do provide robots to help make farm tools and tractors and material handling equipment
  • Fanuc, KUKA and Adept have a presence in food sorting and processing but not in growing or harvesting

Other drivers:

  • Using LED lighting has enabled year-around indoor farming which further enables the metrics for greenhouse robotic processing
  • Better and more specific crop, chemical, air and soil sensors – all at low cost – enables better understanding of crop variability and improves precision methods
  • Learning systems and big data processing help farmers overlay more and more data to understand their farms better and make their precision methods more accurate
  • Swarm technologies and better telematic systems can optimize equipment and control swarm activity, e.g., variable rate swath control to save on seed, minerals, fertilizer and herbicides by reducing overlapping

Governmental funding in the US has been paltry: the USDA has awarded grants totaling $4.5 million for robotics research. Growers Associations and large ag equipment producers have given research grants or done internal R&D supplementing the USDA. Venture capital firms, in a quest to incubate new technology for the industry, have invested $71.1 million in 8 ag-related start-up companies in the last two years5. European public-private-partnerships for various agricultural projects (shown below) has been sufficient to give an edge to EU ag equipment providers as well as start-up companies.

Companies and research facilities to watch: NOTE: If you know of any companies not in this list, please send them to me. Thanks.

  • 3D Robotics
  • AGCO (Fendt)
  • AgriFlight
  • AgroBot
  • AgRobotics
  • Autonomous Tractor
  • BA Systemes
  • Blue River Technologies
  • CLAAS Agrosystems
  • Clever Robots for Crops
  • CNH Industrial
  • Cyberdyne
  • Dorhout R&D
  • Energid
  • F Poulsen Aps
  • Festo
  • Force A
  • Fullwood Ltd
  • Garford Farm Machinery
  • Harvest Automation
  • Insentec BV
  • Irmato
  • Jentjens
  • John Deere
  • Kinze Manufacturing
  • Kongskilde Industries (DK)
  • Lely Group (NL)
  • Mack Robotics
  • Maf Roda Agrobotic
  • Magnificent Pty
  • Naio Technologies
  • National Robotics Engineering Center at CMU
  • Precision Hawk
  • Robotic Harvesting
  • Rovibec Agrisolutions
  • Rowbot
  • SenseFly
  • SmartBot
  • Trimble
  • Vitirover SJCS
  • Wall-Ye
  • Washington State U
  • Yamaha

In the next while, The Robot Report will be posting profiles of many of these companies, their robotics-related products, and their stage of development and field testing. Stay tuned …

[1] America is running out of farm workers by Brad Plumer, Vox, 7/5/14
[2] RAS 2020: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, The Knowledge Transfer Network, July, 2014
[3] Top 5 agricultural technologies, by RBR, 5/21/14
[4] WinterGreen Research press release: Agricultural Robots, 1/28/14
[5] Hizook: and


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Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.
Frank Tobe is the owner and publisher of The Robot Report, and is also a panel member for Robohub's Robotics by Invitation series.

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