Agricultural robotics is already a $3 billion industry and will grow to $12 billion in 2026, according to a new report from IDTechEx Research. Tractor-pulled robotic implements and autonomous robotic de-weeders will play a substantial part in that growth.
Crop protection chemical suppliers will no longer be able to ignore developments in the world of agricultural robotics. This is because their rise will change the amount and types of chemicals used, and will force suppliers to seriously consider re-inventing themselves as providers of crop protection, whatever its form, and not just narrow chemical suppliers.
The agrochemicals business is already experiencing major changes. Increased production of generic off-patent chemicals, particularly in China, has meant long-term downward price pressures. Intensified price competition and declining market sizes have, unsurprisingly, meant industry consolidation.
Some of the changes are more fundamental and long-term nature, and the steady rise of agriculture robotics is certainly one such shift to precision farming. Here, farm data maps together with GPS-enabled equipment have enabled variable-rate farming technology, allowing farmers to vary the rate of input application based on the needs of specific sites/patches as opposed to the entire farm.
Better vision technology, greater access to data and enhanced artificial intelligence will enable agricultural robotics to push this trend towards its ultimate endgame. Farms will be managed on an individual plant basis. Agricultural robotics will cater to the needs of individual plants and will seek and destroy individual weeds.
This is already happening. Tractor-pulled robotic implements are increasingly able to rapidly identify weeds from crops and to take precise action to eliminate them. These machines will become increasingly ruggedized to operate in agricultural environments and will become increasingly intelligent to identify an ever greater variety crops and weeds.
Currently, most are used in organic farming or lettuce thinning, and employ basic template-matching algorithms. In the near future however, deep learning techniques will be used as increased access to millions of crop/weed images means increased fodder for training more complex algorithms. This, in turn, means robots that can take on an increasingly wider spectrum of farming tasks.
Next, agricultural robots will evolve towards being unmanned, autonomous farm vehicles. This will become possible thanks to accelerated commoditization of autonomous navigation technology, reducing regulatory barriers and increasing farmer familiarity with autonomous vehicles.
The advent of ultra-precision farming means an optimized use of chemicals, reducing overall consumption. It will also drive a change in product line-ups from a few blockbuster non-selective herbicides towards many niche selective ones. It will transform volume commodity suppliers into speciality chemicals operations.
Ultra-precision agriculture also will put at risk the successful business model of bundling non-selective herbicides with genetically-engineered, herbicide-tolerant seeds. This is because crop protection chemicals will be applied only on precise individual locations and not across the entire land. Risks from broadcast spraying of non-selective herbicides will becoming obsolete.
These sea changes will not happen overnight. Farmer conservatism will inevitably turn these potentially revolutionary technologies into evolutionary, incremental ones.
Currently, most robotic farm systems are not yet completely reliable therefore they are being commercialized as a service run by skilled operators and priced in $/acre or $/Kg. Their economics are not yet proven in the field, and doing so will inevitably take time because the experimental clock is limited by growing seasons. Farmers still do not trust the robots and are by no means yet desperate enough to pay the current price premium.
This is however no reason for complacency. Several major chemical companies have already made strategic investments in agricultural robotics as a way to learn this business and to potentially secure technology access. The interest in agricultural robotics will inevitably grow.
—Dr. Khasha Ghaffarzadeh is a Research Director at IDTechEx and. has worked on more than 50 consulting projects for clients worldwide.
Credit: EE Times