Adaptation will enable robotic adoption

Published 20180503

AgTech Takeaways – the expanded menu (part 2): In March, I participated in an Austrade-facilitated Australian Agtech Delegation to the US and wrote a blog about my takeaways with four main points of conclusion. Over the next month each of those key points – integrated systems approaches, farming practice adaptation, genomics / computational breeding and open data – will be expanded on in turn.

2. Will you need to adapt to adopt?

‘Farming systems will adapt to make the most efficient use of incoming technology, rather than technology being applied to existing farming systems. The most obvious example of this is robotics and automation: a farm designed to run with a large amount of automation does not necessarily look like a farm reliant on human labour (particularly when labour is a constraint).’

Agriculture (and particularly intensive agriculture) has traditionally required a great amount of labour. Fruit picking, vegetable harvesting, transplanting, pruning, milking, and animal husbandry have all generally been performed as manual tasks dependent on human labour. Extensive agriculture has also been shaped greatly by labour being a significant productivity constraint. Agricultural profitability has only been maintained in the face of declining terms of trade thanks to wider and bigger machines allowing larger areas to be farmed more quickly with less people.

In almost all agricultural industries, labour – or the lack of it – has informed the evolution of farming systems. The pace of this evolution is about to step up a gear as robotics and automation become more accessible and systems adapt to suit the machines rather than tools being limited by entrenched systems.

So why the trend towards adaptation rather than just building machines to replace what humans do?

This article on strawberry-picking robots in the US provides a clue. Robots are actually not that great at in-field manual labour – yet. Despite enormous investment and activity – some of the biggest agtech deals seen in recent times have been for robotic technologies (eg John Deere’s $305 million acquisition of Blue River) – we are yet to see wide-scale commercial use of robotics in the field.

The gap between the promise of the robotic revolution and delivery is still significant, and this has been evident in the reported production issues of the Tesla Model 3 car. The Tesla share price has nosedived as production delays and issues have plagued the development of the new model, with one article on a Bernstein analysis claiming ‘the robots are killing Tesla’. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has admitted that over-automation of the Tesla 3 production line had been a mistake and that more humans were needed in the process. Some further analysis from Bernstein concluded:

‘The world’s best carmakers, the Japanese, try to limit automation because it “is expensive and is statistically inversely correlated to quality.” Their approach is to get the process right first, then bring in the robots – the opposite of Musk’s.’

Getting the process right is a bit trickier in agriculture – but it is happening. Last year Wired reported on lettuce varieties being grown for enhanced ‘pickability’ by water-knife-wielding robots:

‘Taylor Farms has selected a kind of romaine that grows more like a light bulb, which leaves a longer base for the water knife to more efficiently slice. So while workers are adapting to work with the robot, the farm is adapting the produce to work with the machine.’

And orchard architecture is being changed to allow for automated picking according to MIT Technology Review:

‘Changes to orchard design have also made the problem more tractable. Growers have begun to plant dwarf trees and train them to have wide, shallow canopies that result in better yields and also put fruit within easy reach of an opposable thumb or vacuum nozzle.’

Increasing costs and shortage of labourers will be massive pull factors in the adoption of automation and robotics in agriculture, as will autonomation or ‘jidoka’ – technological innovation that enables machines to work harmoniously with operators by giving them the human touch. And as machines are adapted to suit humans, likewise adaptation of farming systems to make automation efficient and affordable will be a key factor in achieving widespread commercial adoption possible.

The robots are definitely coming – but only if we enable them.

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