Robot reapers and AI: Just another day on the farm

Pressures on agriculture have forced a technological revolution that are driving a new age of farming.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

The agriculture industry has hit a turning point. Faced with a massive labor crunch and environmental instability, aggressive technology deployments are no longer an option for outliers in the sector, but a necessary and critical element in the success of the farm. 

Enabling the transformation are a host of new developers, but also legacy companies with deep roots in agriculture. Smart technology from companies like John Deere, for example, is helping farmers to produce more with less and create more successful crops, all while having a smaller impact on the land and environment. In contrast to prevailing wisdom that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, John Deere is employing AI and machine learning in its equipment to identify and enable needed actions at a scope and speed beyond human capacity, automating farming actions through smart robotics to enable consistent and precise actions at large scale, and providing precise, geospatial intelligence generated with machine technology and coupled with cloud-stored data to enable sustainable farming. 

In other words, it's like farming with technologies that might be more commonly associated with NASA than a tractor company. I caught up with Dr. Cristian Dima, Lead of Advanced Algorithms, John Deere Intelligent Solutions Group, to discuss the changes underway in the farming sector and what we can expect going forward.

GN: Can you chart the trajectory of robotics and AI on the farm? Where were the first utilizations and how has that grown?

Dr. Dima: Most industries are either trying to figure out how to implement AI or have just started to do it – but the agriculture industry is the minority. Few realize that farming has long been one of the most high-tech spaces, and one that can shed light on how tech will look in other industries in the future. Advanced automation systems have been on farms for decades, helping farmers operate with a level of precision and consistency that couldn't be achieved alone. 

As we've ushered in the digital era, the agriculture industry continues to be pushed to figure out how to help farmers feed a growing population on less land and with a shrinking labor pool. This is why advanced technologies like robotics and AI are so critical. They enable farmers to automate tasks that require extreme precision and consistency, in the face of rapidly-changing variables, such as weather conditions. The technology is truly an extension to the farmer's own senses, enabling them to make better decisions by detecting and responding to conditions in the field that farmers may not have spotted themselves. 

Our recently released X9 combine series is a great example of how this advanced technology is making a difference for farmers today. This combine is highly automated and uses multiple state-of-the-art AI-based systems to help farmers harvest crops more efficiently as it drives through the field.

GN: What kinds of efficiencies can robotics bring to agricultural operations? Is it just about saving manpower, or are there greater efficiencies at stake?

Dr. Dima: The agriculture industry is experiencing a shortage of skilled labor. Statistics show that 58 million fewer people were employed in agriculture in 2019 when compared to 2005 – that's an 11 percent decrease. Advanced technology equipped in machines makes it easier for less skilled operators to handle the tasks at hand.  

Agriculture is one of the most unpredictable industries, but technology helps mitigate the challenges brought on by that to deliver greater consistency at scale for farmers.  

In the past, agriculture practices were typically handled at the field level: entire fields were planted, treated and harvested in the exact same way, despite the fact that conditions can vary between different sections of the field. Technology is now enabling farmers to manage each section of the farm based on its unique conditions and needs. 

A good example of this in action is the spraying of herbicides, which had traditionally been done at the same rate across the whole field. Thanks to a combination of computer vision, machine learning and robotics technology, spraying no longer has to be a one-size-fits all task. Our See and Spray technology, which we're testing today, possesses precise robotics capabilities that ensures herbicide is only applied to areas where weeds are present. This decreases the amount of herbicides used, resulting in lower costs and increased sustainability since they are only used where necessary.

GN: What scale of agriculture are robots and AI the best fit for? Are we ready for family farms powered by robots, or is that some way off?

Dr. Dima: At Deere, we have customers with farms of all sizes and because needs vary greatly, there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to incorporating robotics technology. 

Robotics technology on large scale farms helps to solve many challenges, as illustrated in my previous answers. However, while not as common, we're starting to see more and more cases of high-tech solutions moving towards smaller family farms. The dairy industry is a good example for how robotic technology can be successfully deployed – in 2016, the global milking robot market size was estimated to be close to $1 billion. Now, that market is projected to grow even more – by over $460 million by 2024. 

The common thread across all of this is that no matter the size of the farm or crop/output, technology isn't going to be adopted just for the sake of it; it has to bring value to customers. We do see opportunities for farms of all sizes to adopt technology if it's economically feasible and provides great value. 

GN: Are we seeing migration of industrial agricultural automation technology to consumer products? How will that change going forward?

Dr. Dima: As agriculture automation becomes commonplace, we will see scaled-down solutions make their way into smaller scale operations, such as gardening or even regular lawn maintenance. We're seeing that interest today in the form of prototypes of robotic lawn mowers that can even help with weed control. 

GN: What does the future of farming look like with respect to robots and AI?

Dr. Dima: In the future, more and more tasks will continue to be automated. Equipment will continue to become smarter to help farmers tend to the needs of every square foot of the ground. More autonomy in each job means that farms of the future will be more economical and environmentally sustainable, which will help farmers produce the best possible results year after year. 

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