AgTech: Building The Robo-Farm

The agricultural industry adopts new technology in the face of change

It’s no secret that the global jobs market is saturated – but not, it would seem, if you want to be a farmer. In 2016, UK farm labour saw a 17 per cent shortfall. The following year, this number had increased to 29 per cent. In 2018, the situation was expected to deteriorate. In the US, the agricultural sector appears to face the same problem. Without enough workers, farmers are forced to leave crops unharvested, cutting output and therefore income. What appears to be a global labour shortage has been attributed to governmental failure to attract workers from abroad. Whatever the reasons, farmers are looking to disruptive solutions. So what does this mean for AgTech, and for the industry as a whole?

Workers in demand

The demand for employees in the agricultural sector is a prime example of how sociopolitical climates can influence technological adoption. Californian berry growing company Driscoll’s, for example, has installed a strawberry picking machine in direct response to the need for labour. Across the globe, farms of all scales are using automated systems including drones and self steering tractors. While the struggle to find employees has certainly encouraged the application of these innovative solutions, it has been equally motivated by a desire to boost productivity and ease the often difficult job of farming.

Robo farming

Iron Ox, based in San Francisco, is building an 8,000 sq ft autonomous farm run by robots. Mechanical arms carefully pick individual plants, and robotic ‘movers’ transport hydroponic trays around the facility. The farm’s software system, ‘The Brain’, monitors nitrogen levels, temperature, and hydration. The Brain also tracks the robots, enabling them to collaborate. The ultimate goal is to remove humans from the equation entirely.

Iron Ox is just one of the companies that are redefining what we think of as a typical farm while bringing agriculture closer to urban areas. Vertical, indoor farms, for example, can be placed in city locations because they are built layer upon layer, making use of hydroponics and precision farming to maximise output. The simple tracking of soil quality means that less fertiliser needs to be used. Biotech startup Pivot Bio has developed a microbial spray that makes plants better at absorbing nitrogen from the earth. Farming, as one of the oldest industries in the world has needed to be receptive to many new technological advancements. Being open to change and innovation puts us in a better position when it comes to feeding the whole world.

Sowing the seeds of change

As well as addressing the labour lapse, affecting productivity, and making farmers’ work easier, automated farming will positively influence the quality of produce. Iron Ox, for example, wants to grow produce closer to cities so that customers don’t have to compromise on freshness. Data collected by robots and other smart solutions can be used to ensure optimal conditions for growth, demonstrating how to get the best results. There are obvious challenges surrounding the development of systems that can reliably look after produce, but getting them up and running is only the first hurdle. Automated farming doesn’t come cheap, and in order to make a real difference companies need to be price competitive. AgTech may even have to contend with unfavourable public opinion. This summer, the EU ruled that CRISPR crops are to be classified as genetically modified organisms (GMO). This could divide opinion and influence the uptake or lack of CRISPR edited produce.

This new wave of AgTech is a fundamental part of mainstream farming, from drones that monitor crops to huge hydroponic trays full of spinach. Automated agriculture has already made it much easier for farmers to carry out their work. Farms can grow more produce using fewer resources like land, fertiliser, soil, time and effort. They will, however, have to pay for the privilege – which is why smaller companies like Iron Ox have a difficult task ahead of them. Fortunately, the exponential adoption of technology in the sector means that farmers won’t be labouring to find workers for much longer… Not human ones, anyway.

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