Automated Food: Planted by Robots, Harvested by Robots

The robo-farm is here

There are no two ways about it, farming is hard work. Long hours, serious physical effort and unpredictable conditions make for a volatile and risky industry. Perhaps this is why agriculture has been so quick to adopt innovative technology, introducing autonomous tractors, aerial drones, crop monitoring systems and advanced robotic machines. Unless you buy locally, farming produce is just the first step in the long process of getting crop to cupboard. Coordinating farmers, suppliers, warehouses, supermarkets and consumer demand is a complicated logistical task that, like agriculture, is ages old but inefficient. Luckily, new technology is revolutionising the supply chain. How? The Internet of Things.

The ‘Hands Free Hectare’  
This September, a team from Harper Adams University harvested a field of barley that was grown entirely by autonomous robots. Last October, the researchers began to convert the field into an impressive demonstration of the technology available to farmers today. They called it the Hands Free Hectare, and from planting to harvest, no human set foot on the field. Instead, robots and drones monitored the process, retrieving data and samples. The harvest took six hours in total, which is admittedly far slower than traditional machinery. However, the process required no person power whatsoever and used small, precise machines which were less harmful to the land. Stepping out of the soil and into the supermarket, connectivity is already playing an increasing role.

Ocado, the world’s largest online retailer, has already demonstrated how automation and IoT can hugely reduce time expenditure. At their Andover warehouse, box-like bots pick food items for orders, sending products from the shelf to the delivery van in under 10 minutes. If an item is in short supply, Ocado’s AI software recognises it and restocks. Amazon is rumoured to be setting up a similar system. So, if you can have automated and connected agricultural, warehouse and in store processes, surely the next logical step is to link them together. With IoT, the farm could be connected to the supplier, which could then be connected to the warehouse or supermarket, which could in turn be connected to the consumer’s fridge. Each part of the supply chain could track and respond to demand with incredible accuracy, eventually facilitating a seamless chain that stretches from field to fridge.

How disruptive are connected food supply chains?
Earlier this year, UK shoppers experienced a courgette shortage and consequent price inflation that resulted from adverse weather conditions in Spain. While the great courgette famine became something of a joke, it showed how easily agricultural fluctuations could impact product availability, even in other countries. If the Spanish farms had been monitored by UK supermarkets in a connected supply chain, they would have known in advance to find alternative suppliers. Green vegetables aside, applying IoT to supply chains allows sellers to provide customers with the items they want when they want them, and make adjustments when stock is likely to be low. As well as eliminating unnecessary overheads, stocking the right amount of food could help to reduce waste. Currently, approximately one third of global food produce ends up in landfill sites. Initially, super connected food supply sounds like a good thing for everyone. But we won’t just see an increase in boxy bots and automated conveyor belts – Ocado, for instance, is developing a humanoid maintenance robot. This leads us back to the ever present question around automation. Yes, it makes processes quicker, cooperative and concise, but what happens to human workers? From a businesses’ perspective, fewer wages paid means more profit made. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that big companies are investing in advanced robotics. Ocado’s Paul Clarke begs to differ, however, stating that automation and robotics are enablers of employment. Of course, this depends on a person’s skill set. If you don’t know how to fix a robot, you won’t be much use working alongside one.

Growing, storing and selling food is necessary to the survival of humanity. There will always be high demand, which is why it’s such an attractive industry for the application of IoT. Unskilled labour will undoubtedly take a hit, but this will benefit those with the relevant knowledge. Tying supply to demand could also bring positive disruption to areas that struggle to produce the required amount of food. If governing bodies could accurately measure levels of demand, they would be far better placed to devise responsive strategies to support farmers and suppliers. Additionally, the potential reduction of food waste could improve global sustainability. Today, influential grocery firms and research teams are building the foundations for the ultimate IoT supply chains and bring about self disruption. It makes you wonder, really, if we’ll reach the point that we won’t need to visit grocery stores at all.

Which other industries could benefit from an IoT connected supply chain? Are automated robots more of an enabler or a threat to employees? Will automated warehouses become the norm? Share your thoughts and opinions.