By James Hoorman, Hoorman Soil Health Services
We have come a long way in agriculture, from using horses to steam engines to gas and diesel tractors, and now to the use of ground and aerial robots. As the human population on earth reaches nearly 10 million people by 2050, our food production is going to have to increase by 70%. Efficient use of nutrient and crop inputs, improving crop genetics, and improving soil health will be needed to improve yields while also addressing environmental concerns. New agricultural technology will also assist in making this goal a reality.
By using satellites and global positioning; tractors, planters, and harvesters can tell where they are positioned in a field. Then with computers came auto-steer (self-guiding equipment) and yield monitors with human assisting and now unmanned robots are starting to perform many repetitious agricultural tasks.
Several new agricultural technologies have recently developed. Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) and Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones are becoming more common. UGVs can work 22 hours a day (2 hours down time for service and maintenance).
Due to their smaller size; weather, soil conditions and the impact of soil compaction are not quite as critical. Due to their increased efficiency (less weight, less steel needed per row, more fuel efficient), smaller units can easily adopt to increasing farm size by adding another unit. A major disadvantage of large equipment is that if one part breaks down, the whole unit stops until it is fixed. On large farms in the future, swarms of robots may perform the same task. If one small robotic unit breaks down, the other units just keeping working.
Several UGV robotic planters are being developed. Anywhere from 1 to 6 row planters and drills can already be purchased. Of course, new technology is expensive but as their use increases, the cost is expected to come down.
Small UGVs (one row) are being used to identify weeds, insects, disease, and nutrient deficiencies. These robots can work night and day. Some are being designed to use electricity to kill small weeds. Others apply small amounts of pesticides (herbicides on weeds, insecticides, fungicides, etc.) as needed to control pests.
Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) or drones are often used to collect plant and soil health information. The amount of data and information that can be collected is huge, zillions of bits of information per acre or farm. Items like soil moisture and temperature, emergence, plant height, plant chlorophyll, and potential plant yield can be collected multiple times a year. A major problem is sorting through all this information (called big data) and trying to make sense of it all so that important decisions can be made to improve crop performance.
UAS or drones use microwave radiometers, short-wave infra-red sensors, and LIDAR (light detecting and ranging) miniature sensors to collect data. LIDAR helps determine soil elevation and crop height. Low flying drones can use the sensors to identify micro nutrient deficiencies associated with insect damage or diseases. They can also be used to apply micro-doses of nutrients or pesticides where needed. This should help farmers use crop inputs more efficiently and in a timely manner, leading to a decrease in crop input rates, improved crop performance, with fewer environmental concerns. Disadvantage of drones or UAS is that high winds and heavy rain can limit their usage. Also, they require long-life batteries and constant refills, so it is not all roses with UAS equipment.
There are several issues that need to be addressed before land-based agricultural robotics become the norm. More research is needed especially on artificial intelligence (AI) to make robots more independent from humans. In the future, they will need to identify and even correct problems as they occur. For example: a flat tire, a clogged spray nozzle, a broken tile or suck hole, a dead deer in the field, a busted bearing, or residue clogging the equipment. With improved AI advancements, the equipment will become self-aware of their environment and will be able to make adjustments, with minimal or little human help.
Other issues include the cost and return on investment, the need for high-speed rural Internet, safety and liability issues, data privacy and data ownership, government regulations and laws, and education of everyone (farmers, policy makers, students, the consumer) to make this technology succeed. From a safety and liability standpoint, smaller equipment does less damage if something goes wrong than larger self-propelled equipment. There is a lot to be done, but do not be surprised if you start seeing more agricultural robots in the not-too-distant future. For more information, download Ground and Aerial Robots for Agricultural Production: Opportunities and Challenges, November 2020.