Spotlight: Agriculture Bots

If you’re wondering what happened to all those stentorian-voiced filmstrip announcers that used to deliver stern warnings about personal hygiene to the schoolchildren of the 1950s, it turns out they’ve moved to Germany and they’re working for Bayer:

But I’m also posting this because I wanted to highlight the increasing importance of A.I., automation, and robots to that most ancient of human endeavours, farming.  Frank Tobe, a blogger and investor who focuses on the emerging robotic sector, wrote a post last year covering 24 companies doing everything from flying drones over farmer’s fields to help them figure out where to spread fertilizer, creating bots that automatically prune, weed, and harvest crops, or creating software for tractors and other farm equipment that can help famers analyze soil conditions to improve crop yield as they plant. As Tobe put it,

[T]he agricultural industry is in transition….A little bit of everything is going on everywhere but the general trend worldwide is toward precision agriculture supplemented by advanced technologies including robotics.

The emergence of and increasing dependence on so much high tech on the modern farm creates its own problems — Digital Rights Management tools embedded in the specialist software used to run the equipment often leaves farmers unable to repair their own tractors — but it also illustrates the extent to which out stereotypes about robots/AI and where they belong and what they do are falling way behind the times. Bots aren’t just for factories, they’re not the smooth skinned androids of some liquid-black, Hype-Williams-video-looking future. They’re out there now, in the world and in the dirt, getting messy, interacting with the real world.

To be sure, some of the most commercially successful bots Tobe highlights are the ones which can do their job in a simplified, highly regimented way — Billerica-based Harvest Automation‘s nursery bots move pots of seedlings around greenhouses with the help of some simple algorithms and some reflective tape on the floor.

On the other hand, the drive toward consistency of product and year-round grow cycles has already pushed much of the agriculture business to become highly regimented already — while a robot might have a hell of a time plucking tomatoes from the bumpy, uneven rows of a backyard garden, the precision-spaced, hydroponically grown “on the vine” tomatoes that turn up in your supermarket even in January are a different matter. monahans-Tomatoes-Village-farm-row

The effect of Ag bots and automation on the employment side of agriculture are interesting as well — during the course of the industrial revolution, agriculture went from employing over 70 percent of the U.S. workforce to less than 2 percent today. These bots suggests that automation technologies may soon become cheap enough to pose a threat even to the livelihoods of migrant farmworkers. Already robots are becoming widespread in Chinese factories. It seems the third world and emerging economies workers who have benefitted the most from globalisation may be facing a new threat.


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