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American consumers have a strong demand for unblemished fruits and vegetables. Satisfying that demand requires hundreds of thousands of workers who have the skills to plant the fields, tend the crops, harvest the produce, and pack it and prepare it for shipment to markets in the U.S. and abroad. Unfortunately, we have a huge shortage of workers with these skills.[i]

The problem is even bigger in Japan where the number of people working in farms dropped from 2.2 million in 2004 to 1.7 million in 2014.[ii] Small farmers are retiring and, in many cases, not being replaced. To improve productivity, the government has encouraged consolidation of farms by larger companies which can apply more business skills to the industry. The consolidation is happening but is limited by the availability of farm workers. The current labor shortage is more than 70,000 full-time employees but experts predict the unmet demand will rise to 130,000 over the next five years.[iii] The European agriculture sector is experiencing similar labor shortages. The root cause of the labor shortages around the world is older farmers are retiring and young people are not finding farming an attractive career opportunity.

Compounding the problem of labor shortages is the increased demand for food. The UN estimates the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050.[iv] A third factor is the need to increase yields for farmers to meet the demand.

Agricultural robots can help increase production yields and fill the labor gap. Robotic solutions range from autonomous tractors to robotic arms. Agricultural robots can automate boring and repetitive tasks, and enable farmers to focus more on managing and improving the overall production yields. Some of the specific tasks robots can fulfill include:

  • Harvesting and picking
  • Controlling weeds
  • Autonomous mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying and thinning
  • Sampling and categorizing genetic characteristics
  • Sorting and packing

Harvesting and picking is one of the most widely adopted robotic applications in agriculture because of the precision and speed robots can deliver. The results are improved yields and reduced waste from crops left in the field. However, these applications can be difficult to automate. The RIA Robotics Online Marketing Team explained,

A robotic system designed to pick sweet peppers encounters many obstacles. Vision systems have to determine the location and ripeness of the pepper in harsh conditions, including the presence of dust, varying light intensity, temperature swings and movement created by the wind. It still takes more than advanced vision systems to pick a pepper. A robotic arm has to navigate environments with just as many obstacles to delicately grasp and place a pepper. This process is very different from picking and placing a metal part on an assembly line. The agricultural robotic arm must be flexible in a dynamic environment and accurate enough not to damage the peppers as they’re being picked.[v]

Farming is not limited to outdoor fields. Next week, I will discuss robotics for indoor farms.

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[i] Zippy Duvall, “America Has a Farm Labor Shortage. We Need a Better Guest Worker Program,”  Los Angeles Times (2019), https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-duvall-farm-labor-shortage-20190212-story.html
[ii] “Global Agricultural Robots Market (2018-2023): Set to Expand at a Cagr of 21.1% “,  Associated Press (2018), https://www.apnews.com/f204e2f3f54f4f378399d549ab6aa25e
[iii] “Japan in Dire Need of Foreign Farm Workers,”  Fresh Plaza (2018), https://www.freshplaza.com/article/9046466/japan-in-dire-need-of-foreign-farm-workers/
[iv] “World Population Projected to Reach 9.7 Billion by 2050,”  United Nations (2015), https://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html
[v] “Robotics in Agriculture: Types and Applications,”  Robotics Industries Association (2017), https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/Robotics-in-Agriculture-Types-and-Applications/74