How do we embrace automation in agriculture?
Automation is an evolution of technological improvement. If used correctly, automation will allow enhanced productivity, efficiency and prevent wastage. We are still in the infancy of enabling machines to perform tasks that we as humans hope to offload as they are dull, dirty or dangerous. The capabilities of the technology that I have investigated in my study are amazing and should be revered for their capabilities. However, unless the task is simplified to single or limited operations, there are still limitations to the programming and the capabilities for software to operate this machinery. There are still huge technological leaps that need to be made with artificial intelligence (AI) and the analytics of big data to allow us to truly understand the potential of autonomous machines.
It is my belief that the next company to make this step change with automation in agriculture will be a SME that will kick-start the larger machinery manufacturers into action in similar ways to that of Tesla vs the whole automotive industry. The recent drive for electrification of vehicles will not have an impact unless large advances are made in power density; until then agricultural machinery will run predominantly on fossil fuel.
Tractors and agricultural machines carrying out fieldwork will soon stop looking all the same, for practical reasons. The iconic design of an engine, cab, small wheels at the front, big wheels at the back followed with a hitch at the rear, will evolve. Multi-use automated Ag machines will have advantages in design, power train and weight. With improvements in the machines’ capabilities and enabling increased adaptability my belief is that Ag machines of future crop production will slowly change from the classic design we have all grown up to know.
Drone spraying is a proven technology across the world and we in the UK are being left behind due to usage restrictions. The industry needs to find new waysto champion new technologies and bring them to market; not hold back innovation when safety and environmental benefits are a real possibility.
Fully electric drones are allowing the industry to realise their broad potential even with their current capabilities, maybe more than any other agricultural machine. But they still have two obvious limitations:
- Power source needs to be improved to maintain flight for longer or indefinitely.
- The ‘human in the loop’ is a huge limitation. Until an operator can be taken away from the ‘babysitting process’, the true potential of drones will remain limited.
I feel we as an industry are still in the early stages of commercialisation. The development of innovative business models for its use on farm is essential to ensure widespread adoption. I expect this to soon change.
Automated agriculture for arable enterprises is in the early stages of commercialisation with major OEMs and start-ups alike offering solutions to market.
- Autonomous technology is likely to be supplied as a service, without growers owning machinery, with operations being conducted on a contract basis.
- Commercial remote drone agronomy options are a tool to be used to complement conventional techniques and cannot currently replace them.
- Lack of legislation remains the primary barrier to widespread legal adoption of automated machines within all technological sectors including agriculture.
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