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 One of the biggest challenges to developing a machine to pick asparagus was implementing image processing which can differentiate stages of growth

As stories emerge of crops rotting in the fields for lack of immigrant workers to harvest them, are robotics able to step in and save us? Automation has claimed traditional jobs in other sectors, so why not agriculture? Andy Pye gazes into the fields

Field of dreams A

ccording toDr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, research director of IDTechEx, agricultural robotics can upend several commonly-held notions. Among themis the idea that bigger is better. In practice

this has translated into ever larger andmore powerful agriculturalmachinery. Thismakes sense because a bigmachine amplifies the capabilities of the skilled driver, dramatically boosting its productivity. This notionmay, however, be about to experience a fundamental change because the driver can now finally be taken totally out of the equation. The IDTechEx research report – Agricultural

Robots andDrones 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, Players – develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will enter into different aspects of agriculture, how it will change the way farming is done, how it becomes the future of the agrochemicals business and how it willmodify the way we design agriculturalmachinery.

THE AUTONOMOUS TRACTOR Agricultural vehicles have been at the forefront of developing and adopting autonomous navigation technology. Indeed,more than 320,000 tractors equipped with auto-steer or tractor guidance were sold in 2016 alone, expected to rise to 660,000 in 2026. These tractors use RTK GPS technology to autonomously follow pre-planned paths with centimetre-level accuracy. Thismakes agriculture the largest adopter of autonomous navigation. Leading tractor companies worldwide have already

demonstratedmaster-slave or “follow-me” unmanned autonomous tractors or load carts.Here, amanned operator supervises themovement of the lead tractor with others following suit. This technological evolution will further the notion

that bigger is better, because it enables further amplification of the productivity of the skilled driver

more productive, these new classes of agricultural robots will need to be lower cost by asmuch as 24 times tomake economic sense and to enable mainstreamadoption in themedium-term. This would be a radical shift in the way we envisage agricultural vehicles. The emerging

February 2017 /// Environmental Engineering /// 15

viamultiple slave or follower vehicles. This arrangement will find increasing use in large-scale crop field farming. Fully and unmanned autonomous tractors will be the next evolutionary step.Multiple semi-commercial prototypes have already been demonstrated by leading agriculturalmachinery companies. The technical challenges are largely resolved.Here,

the tractor becomes equipped with a variety of overlapping sensors such as LIDAR, RADAR and sonar to provide autonomous navigation in the absence of GPS signals together with collision avoidance. Technology costs are currently high but the largest

hurdles are to be found in the lagging regulatory framework and the farmers’ desire to stay in charge. These will all inevitably change, particularly as the farming population further ages across the globe.

MOBILE AGRICULTURAL ROBOTS Meanwhile, the advent ofmobile agricultural robots will create the notion that small, light and slow is good. In this vision, a few heavy, fast, large and manned tractors become replaced by, or complemented with,many light, slow, small and unmanned robots. Here, the lightnessmeans no soil compaction, thus

increasing the useful land in each farmby asmuch as 3 per cent, and slownessmeansmore attention paid to each plant – therefore better data andmore precise plant-specific action. Small size alsomeans potentially low cost. However, because large and fastmachines are

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