Feature: Page (1) of 1 - 05/31/16

Technology: Boosting Productivity for Farmers

By Paul Fitzgerald for America's Backbone Weekly

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Agricultural robots, also known as agbots, are now making their way on the market and will prove beneficial for the agricultural industry on the productivity and cost savings fronts.

Agbots can be used to automate agricultural processes from harvesting, fruit picking, ploughing, soil maintenance, weeding, planting, and irrigation. Agbots are now being introduced on the market and we will see more of them on farms in 2018, and they will be mainstream by 2020, according to Business Insider, a popular business and tech news website.

Since the dawn of agrarian culture, farming has been manual labor: walking down rows, through patches, going plant-by-plant to check for weeds, bugs, parched soil, any sign of distress. However, modern machinery, computers, and ground-based sensors have made crop monitoring and tending more efficient.

Drones In The Sky
Farmers can now launch eBee, the airborne drone that scouts for pests by surveying the land and capturing high-resolution images that assist farmers' fertilizer spraying and planting regimes.

Deployed as worker bees, spraying and treating crops, the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates farmers' return-on-investment alone could be $12 per acre for corn and $2 to $3 per acre for soybeans and wheat. And it's not just easy fertilizer application but super-high resolution spectral imaging, allowing for more targeted fertilizing and better use of water and labor. The main drone-based observational technique is what's called NDVI, or Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, a measure assessing crop productivity, calculated on infrared radiation.

It helps that autonomous or semiautonomous flight has come down in price, just as we have seen like flat screen televisions and other related technology. Yes, technology is advancing and costs are dropping for robots in the sky and on the ground. Surprisingly, better smartphone technology is a key reason. By perfecting certain computer processing for mobile devices gyroscopes, altimeters, compasses, for example domestic drone use at scale is now possible. From MIT to Carnegie Mellon, Purdue and Oregon State, researchers are developing aerial and ground-based robotic technologies, allowing everything from better analysis of potato fields and collection of water samples to the pruning of apple and peach orchards.

Back On The Ground
Robots, or agbots, are already transforming agriculture by weeding, hay bailing, and seeding autonomously. Agbots are not really intended for a small family farm but for larger producers, so a return on investment is based on human staff they will ultimately replace. Robots for farming range in price from $50,000 to $500,000, or even more. However, since they will replace humans, for the most part, the ROI will be fruitful and investing in this kind of technology will pay off quickly for any farm owner. Agbots will also benefit small family farms as this new technology will allow for better efficiency and productivity.

Bonirob is a four-wheeled autonomous weed control machine and one or several can work together to remove weeds and apply fertilizer.

Grizzly RUV can bail hay and hunt cow urine. From Clearpath Robotics, the Grizzly handles big jobs like hay bailing and the more delicate tasks, like detecting cow urine to determine where grass may need treatment.

Future Tractor is quite unique. Soon these planting, cultivating and harvesting workhorses will be fully autonomous via GPS-guided equipment with sensors to avoid obstacles.

An Autonomous Harvest System is already on the market and is collaboration between Jaybridge Robotics and Kinze Manufacturing in Williamsburg, Iowa, and is hailed as the world's first large-scale, truly autonomous row-crop solution.

Then there is Rowbot, tough little fertilizer droid that scoots between rows of crops, applying fertilizer as it goes, and it's very efficient too.

And finally, tending weeds is not just a crop issue it's a livestock matter of concern, as well. To help keep fields clear for livestock, UK-based technology firm Ibex Automation is starting fully autonomous field trials in England's Peak District of its extreme mobility agricultural robot that identifies and destroys weeds in some tricky terrain.

It's difficult enough dealing with weeds on flat areas, but in higher elevations on fields that are at steep angles and only accessible by mud tracks the alternatives are wasteful and hazardous particularly for manual spraying, which also costs thousands of dollars, not to mention the risk to workers. Ibex offers an autonomous robot farmer that's cheaper and safer and not only could make tending existing upland farms easier, but can be employed to open up previously inaccessible areas.

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