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:
Use of robots:
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.
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 …
 America is running out of farm workers by Brad Plumer, Vox, 7/5/14
 RAS 2020: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, The Knowledge Transfer Network, July, 2014
 Top 5 agricultural technologies, by RBR, 5/21/14
 WinterGreen Research press release: Agricultural Robots, 1/28/14
 Hizook:http://www.hizook.com/blog/2014/06/25/venture-capital-vc-funding-robotics-2013 and http://www.hizook.com/blog/2013/06/10/venture-capital-vc-funding-robotics-2012
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