The Rise of Agricultural Robots

Global military expenditures in 2013 totaled $1.75 trillion, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) whereas global spending on food and agricultural research and development (R&D) was around $54.2 billion in 2008 (the latest year for which complete data are available). Both security and food are equally essential, but the relative amount of money being spent on these areas raises serious questions. The current pattern of growth in military and agricultural robots shows the same disproportion. The global market size for military robots was more than five times that of agricultural robots in 2013. However, in the next 5 years something strange is predicted to happen. Researchers are forecasting steep growth in the agricultural robot market to an anticipated value of around $16 billion by 2020 (an increase of 20 times compared to 2013 figures). If this prediction comes true, it may reduce the gap between the research spending on military and agricultural robots. But what could be the reasons that are forcing the near-term need for agricultural robots, and where exactly are these robots needed? The answer lies in the supply and demand for food.

The Growing Demand for Food

On October 31, 2011, the United Nations announced that the population of the world had crossed the 7 billion mark. With such explosive growth, the ability to feed the ever-growing masses is a top concern. By 2025, we will need to feed 1 billion more people. Each day, 200,000 more people are added to the world’s dinner table. In addition to increasing demand for food by a rising population, the increasing income of a large portion of the world’s population is resulting in ever-increasing consumption of food per capita as well as food waste.

The Shrinking Number of Food Producers

According to various research surveys on rural demographics in the U.S., Japan and the EU, the farmer populations are aging rapidly. In 2012, the average age of farmers in the U.S. was 58 years old, and the average farmer in Japan was 67 years old. More than one-third of European farmers are older than 65. In fact, Japan expects another 40% of their farmers to quit agriculture in the next 10 years. Moreover, there is a huge gap between the demand and supply of farm workers. For example, in the U.S., there has been a sharp decline in agricultural employment in comparison with total employment, and the average number of hired farm workers has steadily declined over the last century, from roughly 3.4 million to just over 1 million. Farmers in the U.S. are said to have as much as a 30 percent shortage of farm workers. Moreover, agricultural work is painful and farm laborers are poorly paid all over the world. Even in developing countries, where 60% of the population is under 25 years of age, only a few rural youth see a future for themselves in agriculture. Brazil, India, and China suffer a massive brain drain in rural areas and report a shortage of farm labor, even with a tangible increase in salaries. Keeping young, talented people in rural communities is a huge challenge.

The Role of Agricultural Robots

Farmers believe that farm robots could provide relief from labor shortages, reduce costs, increase quality, and yield a more consistent product. But there are not good enough robots commercially available in the market that they can immediately use. Around the world, there has been an increase in the number of companies showing interest in the development and deployment of driverless tractors, cow milking systems, and robots for various processes like harvesting, pruning, weeding, pick-and-place, aerial observation, sorting, seeding, spraying, and materials handling by integrating advanced sensors, hardware, networking, and high-precision localization technologies. But unfortunately, many of these robotic systems are still not ready to work on farms. These robots need not be highly sophisticated in terms of construction, technology, and operation. There are many complex technologies that have been already developed and deployed in several types of military robots. The real reason is that there has not been considerable attention, attempts to solve agricultural issues, research, funding, collaboration, and utilization of innovative human minds to develop farm robots.

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