One of our favorite images we’ve used when pitching technology in agriculture is monitors mounted in combines as farmers till and harvest showing board futures prices and basis prices at local elevators. Well, 2019 farmers are taking it to a whole new level.
The Journal ran an article about how expanded cell service and GPS guided tractors significantly reduce human interaction time on farm machinery, and many farmers now have a screen dedicated to Netflix Inc (NASDAQ: NFLX) when they get bored on the phone negotiating crop and input prices, looking at weather forecasts, reading news, and whatever else they fill 12 to 18 hours sitting in their tractor or combine.
Technology, automation, robots, and drones have long been lauded as job killers that will cause mass unemployment in the U.S. and around the globe. But the agricultural industry in the U.S. is facing major issues that drones, AI, and all the other tech buzzwords you hear every day could truly solve. One of the top issues is there is a major shortage of workers in the agricultural space. Stricter imigration policy and low unemployment rates pressured farms in recent years, particularly in heavy labor sectors like fruit and vegetables. With farm incomes at multi-decade lows and farm debt at multi-decade highs, offering higher farm wages just isn’t an option for many.
This lack of labor creates a new opportunity for firms to create viable solutions to alleviate these pressures. Today, we are looking at a few companies doing exciting things in the agricultural drone and robot space.
Engineers in Washington state have rolled out a robot they claim efficiently identifies, picks, and packs ripe apples. Washington is the largest producer of apples in the country, and recent laws increasing the state’s minimum wage added costs to producers. It should have also attracted more farm workers, but with low unemployment farms are still unable to find the help they need.
How tech works: the robot operates by moving down rows of orchards and utilizes LIDAR (light detection and Ranging) along with artificial intelligence to seek optimally ripe apples. Upon detection, a robotic vacuum arm extends and carefully sucks the apple from the tree into a bin for storage.
Engineers in Florida are working on a similar robot for strawberries. CROO Robotics has developed a prototype machine that is roughly the size of a bus with the length to cover a dozen rows of strawberries at once. Complex computers sit atop the machine and beneath there are HD cameras with robotic claws that are poised to pick ripe strawberries. Each robot arm can pick up to 50% of the ripe berries, a good bit below human processing at 60% to 90%.
Strawberries require a special, gentle handling as to not damage the berry and require a unique ability to distinguish quality and ripeness, so while berry farmers would love to be able to automate the picking process, technology available thus far has proven less than suitable to their needs. The “AI” in these machines will need significant improvement before rolling out to commercial scale.
Superweeds such as ryegrass and palmer amaranth are actively adapting to herbicides and chemicals that have been used by farmers for decades. With ever adapting weeds that take up light, water, and nutrients, and high prices for newer, patented herbicides, farmers are always looking for new technologies to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
A company called FarmWise is devising yet another way to combat weeds by using cameras mounted on a robot, and using mapping directly destroy weeds by pulling them out of the ground without trampling or destroying valuable crops. This technology is very different from precision or targeted sprayers using similar identifying techniques and administering a small amount of herbicide as it can be used on organic farms.
Correction: In an earlier edition, we gave incorrect information that FarmWise's robots cannot weed in rows in between the crops. FarmWise reached out to school us on their awesome product:
"We use artificial intelligence - machine learning - and advanced robotic systems to be able to do so. A handful of FarmWise's robots are working on vegetable fields every day in California, generating revenues. We're operating them based on a service model. We're planning the deployment of a dozen of robots by the end of the year."
A UK Startup, Rootwave, is using a slightly different method to kill weeds: a jolt of electricity to destroy weeds by boiling them inside out from the root up. Rootwave recently rolled out an at-home hand-weeding product, Rootwave Pro, designed for home gardeners and groundskeepers in the lawn care industry. After the Rootwave Pro, the company plans on moving focus to large-scale agriculture with its first launch in 2020. Rootwave’s large scale robots use vision recognition to identify weeds in real-time and then deliver a 5,000 volt jolt of electricity to eliminate the target on site without damage to neighboring plants around them.
How will the price of Rootwave’s large scale farming machines compare to the on-going cost of herbicides? Little is known about repair or maintenance costs for future Rootwave robots and it is possible that the cons for purchasing and upkeep of these robots outweigh the benefits of switching over from herbicides or manual weeding. According to CEO, Andrew Diprose, the technology is comparable in cost to herbicides and long term can be more cost-effective than current herbicides on the market due to the machines lifespan.
Corporate Giants Vying for Most-Black-Mirror-Esque Patent
In April, the internet went berserk after a video made the rounds of an Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) mothership drone hovering over a city releasing mini-drones for either package delivery or destruction of humans. The video turned out to be a hoax, but it felt so believable. Especially since Amazon was actually granted a patent in 2016 with a similar design.
Not to be outdone dreaming up a post-apocalyptic sci-fi world, Walmart Inc (NYSE: WMT) recently applied for a number of patents using drones to automate farming, including “systems and methods for pollinating crops via unmanned vehicles” - a robot bee.
What would a technology special be without blockchain! And after exhaustive research we now we know exactly how much the Global Agriculture Blockchain Market will grow through 2025: 41.22%.
How they got the starting or ending numbers is a mystery, but with a number that precise it has to be true.
Image sourced from Pixabay
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