While the average age of the U.S. farmer is nearly 60 years (and older in some states), it shouldn't be surprising how well and how quickly producers have embraced technology. After all, above everything else, farming is a business, and staying on top of the latest developments in any industry is a wise decision.
But in spite of growers staying abreast of the latest seed technology and new developments in insecticides, weed control, and plant technology, science and innovation is still outpacing the agricultural industry's ability to implement invention as fast as it is introduced and made available on the market.
Most often that is because new technology comes with a hefty price tag, and until farmers can justify technology investments against proven benefits, who can blame them for being cautious about parting with their hard earned dollars, especially when market prices are low or unstable?
Yet few will deny that farming's hope for better profits, and even for survival, depends on growing what we grow more efficiently by increasing yields and quality while lowering input costs. In a perfect world, our seeds would produce healthier, heartier plants that require less treatment, less water and labor, and would provide greater yield per acre while costing us less to produce.
At least that’s the conclusion of analysts at Lux Research in Boston. The international research conglomerate maintains offices and research centers around the world and is noted for helping multiple industries implement new technologies and strategies designed to help decision and policymakers to take advantage of all the tools science and emerging technologies make available.
In a recent report, "Planting the Seeds of a Robot Revolution: How Autonomous Systems Are Integrating into Precision Agriculture," authors of the study paint a vivid picture of farming's future landscape.
While that future includes many if not more advanced versions of new technology that farmers have already embraced, such as biotechnology and precision tools, the study looks a little further into the future, a day when robots of various kinds will alter the landscape of farming across the world.
“Currently, robots often aren’t affordable – cost remains the most significant barrier to adoption,” said Sara Olson, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the report. “However, the costs of many systems are coming down, while wages rise due to labor shortages in some areas, and the benefits robots bring in the form of increased accuracy and precision will start to pay off in coming years.”
As part of their research, Lux Research analysts studied automation in agriculture and the latest and ongoing developments in agricultural robotics. Among their findings:
- Robots are already nearing parity with labor in corn farms worldwide. “Autosteer” systems for tractors and harvesters can be cost-effective for corn growers with large operations, and have achieved a nearly 10 percent market penetration so far. The gap between labor cost and Autosteer- or Edrive-assisted labor in U.S. corn farming is relatively small but is expected to become negligible by 2020.
- European lettuce growing is expected to become autonomous in 2028. Automated lettuce weeding is already competitive with human labor in Europe, thanks to regulatory limitations on agrochemicals. Lettuce thinning is still accomplished manually at lower cost, but robots are likely to reach break-even status with human labor by 2028.
- Machines are also a good fit for Japanese strawberry fields. A strawberry-harvesting robot is approximately cost-equivalent to human labor in Japan, but only when shared by multiple farms. With strawberry-picking being slow and labor-intensive, and labor scarce and expensive – the average agricultural worker in Japan is over 70 years old – the robot is soon likely to become the cheaper option.
In addition, the study reached other conclusions. It is important to note that the company's research was based on analysis of all agricultural patents registered worldwide between 2010 and 2014.
The report indicates coming changes in agriculture will be driven by the need to produce more food to meet the demand of a growing worldwide population, the burgeoning numbers of middle class consumers with more diverse tastes and requirements, and sociopolitical trends towards back to roots food production, which utilizes less chemical use and encourages biodiversity.
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According to the website www.aginnovationden.com, operated by an organization promoting technology development for agriculture, the five technologies that will shape farming's future include:
- If precision technology has been at the forefront of farming innovation in recent years, monitoring crops from the sky will be next. Although drones have been talked about in agriculture for several years, they are now beginning to cross the line between AN aspirational and a viable business tool, promising increased yields through crop health imaging at relatively low cost.
- The rapid development of precision farming techniques—soil monitoring and wearables for cows, for things such as heat detection—means the use of sensors in agriculture is not new. However, there is no doubt they will become ever-more sophisticated in years to come, as developers find new ways to exploit the technology. One of the latest developments to attract media attention is a 45mm bean-shaped sensor which can be placed into grain silos to report on temperature and humidity.
- Many believe robots will be commonplace on farms in coming years. As well as automated machines to carry out large-scale field work, small robots could perform tasks such as weeding and crop picking, providing solutions to a number of issues, including labor shortages and crop protection on organic farms.
- New molecular biology techniques have made it possible for scientists to introduce or edit genes in plant breeding in such a way they are indistinguishable from natural breeding processes, leading to calls they would not be labeled as genetically modified. This could pave the way for much greater public acceptance and lead to a sharp rise in disease-resistant varieties, requiring far fewer inputs.
- As precision farming techniques continue to develop, expect to see more interfacing between technologies, enabling automated machines to carry out field work using data collected from linked sources, such as real-time soil sensors, GPS mapping, images from drones and even climate sensors.