Farming Robots Are About To Take Over Our Farms-

Of the industries facing automation, agriculture could see the most upside from robots in the next few years. And the farming robot wave, along with other new agricultural technology, could come even sooner than you think, as the Trump administration's immigration crackdown worsens an acute labor shortage.

Loup Ventures managing partner Gene Munster compares this next agricultural revolution to the one seen last century, when new equipment, fertilizers, pesticides and high-yield crop breeds sparked an explosion in farm production around the world.

"I think agriculture is the greatest near-term — I define over the next five years — opportunity around robotics and autonomy," he said.

The relative lack of red tape on wide-open fields is a boon to the farming robot and other new agricultural technology. Compare that to the safety rules needed to deploy self-driving cars on congested city streets. That, plus the labor shortage, helps create "a wonderful intersection between robotics and agriculture," Munster added.

The farming robot is actually just one new technology that will transform the sector. Today's agricultural technology helps farmers plow and spray crops with greater precision. Now improved automation and big data analytics are joining with farming robot technology, pointing to big benefits.

Goldman Sachs estimates precision farming — the combination of agriculture and technology — could be a $240 billion market by 2050. Automation will be a key piece of the puzzle. Market tracker Euromonitor says the intersection of robotics, artificial intelligence, analytics and machines for precision farming is one of the industry's top business opportunities.

"I think that this is the next great wave of agricultural productivity," William Blair analyst Lawrence De Maria told IBD. "The implementation of precision agriculture with automation will drive yields and reduce input costs for growers. It could rival the Green Revolution and mechanization as great drivers of agricultural productivity."

Farming's labor crunch is a global problem. And the industry expects things to get worse in the years to come. Even in Mexico, where many California workers have originated, firms are finding it tough to man the fields.

In Europe, Spanish company Agrobot is developing a rival strawberry farming robot. Its machine uses up to 24 robotic arms to pick fruit and is capable of autonomous navigation.

And in England, Dogtooth Technologies is developing its own series of smart autonomous robots capable of picking fruit. Smaller in size than the Harvest CROO and Agrobot offerings, Dogtooth machines will be capable of autonomous navigation, locating and picking ripe fruit, and grading its quality.

In Cambridge, Mass., privately owned Soft Robotics has developed a robotic gripping system that has the same dexterity as the human hand. Its robotic arms are equipped with soft grippers that can even handle fragile produce such as apples and tomatoes. The firm is targeting both harvesting and food processing to automate the supply chain.

"With soft robotics we can now automate harvesting, processing, packaging and even grocery logistics," in a way that hasn't been available before, CEO Carl Vause said. "With our technology we are able to give the industrial robots that are tried and true out there today for speed, for precision (and) for lifetime operations, the ability to do high-speed handling of apples, tomatoes, heads of lettuce (and) strawberries."

Meanwhile, UC Davis researchers have developed a "no touch" vineyard, where machines do everything. A robotic irrigation system directed by sensors waters the vines. Then machines are used to pick the fruit. The system allows for around 40 more plants per acre, improving yields, quality and costs. It costs around 7 cents per vine in labor to manage the touchless vineyard, compared to $1 in a conventional vineyard.

Deere continues to seek new innovations and bought Blue River Technology for $305 million last summer. Blue River developed a robot that can see, diagnose, and execute actions such as whether to spray a weed with herbicide. Its machine learning expertise in agriculture was a key reason for the purchase.

"If they don't advance from a technology standpoint, someone can come in and steal the business," Munster said. "But by advancing on that, it can be negative for their business too, because you usher in a new generation of machines that potentially would need less maintenance."

"The big data, the sensing, the AI, the robotics — a lot of that is going to allow a massive transformation in agriculture," Slaughter said.

Berry producer Driscoll's is looking at other types of agriculture technology too. It tested an autonomous buggy that analyzes the health of plants. The machine can examine 1,500 plants per hour. It should be capable of operating fully autonomously with a 98% accuracy rate by the end of 2019.

ROBO Global created the first benchmark index to track the global robotics and automation industry with its Robotics & Automation ETF (ROBO). President and CIO William Studebaker has been following the progress of agricultural robots with a keen eye. He says farming is a "massive market" for robotics, with a lot of disruption on the horizon. Investors

"It's all about trying to reduce costs and save time. It's going to be a growth industry for a long time," Studebaker said. "The pace of change is only accelerating, and it's accelerating very dramatically right now. Either you innovate or you will be out of business. Innovation wins, and that's what's going on."

He believes we can barely see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact automation will have on farming going forward.




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