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Cheap robots are coming for our farm jobs by taking the most brutal tasks first
More than a million people working in America’s fields, and far more globally, are about to face competition from workers who never sleep, get tired or ask for a living wage.
As field robots have gotten cheaper, a steady stream of farm jobs are being automated. Lettuce weeding is one of the first where the cost of robots now matches human labor, reports Lux Research in a new analysis. Although costs remain too high for robots to replace most farm work for low-value crops, it’s a taste of what’s to come.
Weeding lettuce is slow, expensive, and potentially dangerous due to chemical exposure. Farm workers must spray individual weeds from a pesticide-filled backpack. Automated systems like the one designed by Danish firm F. Poulsen Engineering replace this with mechanical weeding and computer vision to distinguish between crops and pests. The company says it can do the job much faster and at no extra cost. That hits the sweet spot for inexpensive machinery to replace high-cost labor.
“Agriculture for hundreds of years has been an intuition business,” says Lux’s lead agricultural analyst Sara Olson in an interview. That will end as “precision agriculture” brings data and automation to traditional tasks, making farming more productive and profitable, she predicts. At first, robots will make existing jobs more productive. But jobs will ultimately be lost as robots assume more and more of the work. “Over time, there would have to be a shift,” says Olson. “It will happen slowly enough that I see an opportunity for people who want to be in the industry to learn how to operate machinery, manufacture the equipment, and service and support these new systems.”
Robots will likely make inroads fastest in areas where the labor is backbreaking, and peak harvest times create a short supply of workers. Most robots have been built for specialized tasks: grapevine pruners, lettuce thinners, strawberry picking and cow-milking robots. But corn and other commodity crops are already taking advantage of economies of scale to get ahead of the cost curve. Large corn farmers in the US are buying features like self-steering tractors to save money. Even though the technology isn’t expected to reach price parity with human labor until 2020 for most farmers, about 10% of US farmer have adopted the technology because of their scale, reports Lux.
Robots Wielding Water Knives Are the Future of Farming
JUST AFTER DAWN in the Salinas Valley south of San Francisco, a raucous robot rolls through a field spitting clouds of vapor. It’s cutting lettuce heads with water knives — super-high-pressure beams — and gobbling up the produce. The heads roll up its mouth and onto a conveyor belt, where workers in hoodies and aprons grab the lettuce and tear off the loose leaves.
Right across the road, workers are harvesting lettuce the agonizing old-fashioned way — bent over with knife in hand. “If you’re a beginner, it kills you because your back really hurts,” says Isabel Garcia, a harvester who works atop the robot. “It takes somebody really strong to be doing that kind of work.”
Garcia and the other workers here didn’t lose their jobs to a robot — they work in tandem with one. And just as well, because California farms are facing a serious labor shortage of perhaps 20 percent. Increasingly sophisticated robots have to pick up the slack, here and around the world. Because if humanity expects to feed its booming population off a static amount of land, it’s going to need help.
Here in the Salinas Valley, farmers and tech types are teaming up to turn this into a kind of Silicon Valley for agriculture. And they’re not stopping at water-knife-wielding robots. Because it’s data that will truly drive this agricultural revolution. It’s not just about robots doing jobs humans don’t want to do, but AI doing jobs humans can’t do. And AI can’t go anywhere without data.
For sure, the robots will definitely support the dwindling farming workforce. Fewer immigrant workers are coming to the fields, and their demographics are shifting. “Just with a changing population here in California, we’ve got an aging workforce,” says Mark Borman, president of Taylor Farms California, which operates the robot. “So people who are coming out to do agricultural, we’re not getting that younger population into the job.”
That means not only using robots to help fill those jobs, but modifying the product they grow to make things easier for the machine. Taylor Farms has selected a kind of romaine that grows more like a light bulb, which leaves a longer base for the water knife to more efficiently slice. So while workers are adapting to work with the robot, the farm is adapting the produce to work with the machine. This is what the future of agriculture looks like: Humans modifying food to fit robots as much as they modify their own behavior to suit the machines.
More and more, agriculture is about automation. Not that automation is anything novel. Farming has seen thousands of years of technological advances, from the horse-drawn plow to the combine harvester. But in this digitized world, the pace of automation is accelerating. “At the end of the day, a lot of the traditional work that’s being done in the fields, fewer and fewer people want to do that,” says Dennis Donohue, lead of the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, a kind of incubator that tallies over 30 ag tech startups in downtown Salinas. “So parts of those functions are simply going to be automated.”
“We’re not looking to replace a workforce,” Donohue says. “We’re looking to maintain an industry and the food supply for North America.” In fairness, automation is also great for making money, whether it’s at the expense of workers or not. But Donahue has an existential argument on his side that, say, car factory operators don’t: Humanity is in danger of not being able to feed itself. By 2050, the world population could boom to almost 10 billion people. Farmers will have to feed those humans — not to mention their livestock — with the same amount of land. Hell, even less land, as ocean levels continue to rise.
Automation will chip away at the problem of production efficiency. But data technology solutions may be even more critical. Here in the incubator, a startup called AgriData is developing a way for machines to manage the productivity of fields. Its gadget rapidly scans trees to pinpoint fruits and determine their yield. Thus farmers can get a better sense of how their fields are producing to better time their harvests.
Up in the hills overlooking the Salinas Valley, one winery is using data to tackle an even more pressing problem: water. Hahn Family Wines has partnered with Verizon to digitize its fields, sampling the soil as well as the humidity around the plants. “With our soil sensors we’re measuring how far down that moisture is going and if it’s gone out the bottom of the soil,” says Andy Mitchell, director of viticulture. “Then we know we’ve put on too much water so we can cut back. It really helps us fine-tune our application methods.”
California may be out of its brutal drought, but there’s no telling how climate change will shape the coming decades. The state has to somehow provide water for 20 million people while watering a $50 billion agriculture industry. And that’s to say nothing of, well, literally everywhere else on the planet. But expect the technology growing here in the Salinas Valley to make its way around the world, water knives and all.
Farm robots ready to fill Britain’s post-EU labour shortage
The farmworker toiling in a field in Lincolnshire on a recent morning is happy to work nights and never asks for a coffee break. Best of all, he needs no visa.
Meet Thorvald, a member of a new generation of farm robots being readied to plug a labour shortage on Britain’s farms that may soon be exacerbated by Brexit.
“That’s the main motivation for this — it’s a huge concern,” Pål Johan From, the robotics professor who developed Thorvald, said of Britain’s vote last June to leave the EU.
Gripping a joystick that looks as though it were borrowed from a video game console, Mr From manoeuvred Thorval around the grounds of the University of Lincoln, where he is a part-time professor, as a group of farmers and researchers looked on. Its rectangular frame and thick wheels were nothing fancy. Still, one of the local farmers marvelled. “It looks like the future,” he said.
Thorvald has already mastered useful — if rudimentary — tasks: he can carry trays of strawberry plants to human pickers, sparing them miles of walking through vast fields. At night, he passes over plants with ultraviolet lights to kill mildew that might otherwise spoil as much as half the crop.
Now with a grant from one of the UK’s largest produce companies, Mr From and scientists from Lincoln and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences will raise their ambition and try to make fleets of Thorvalds that can operate autonomously.
“They have the potential, really, to do any task in agriculture,” Mr From said.
How soon is a matter of debate. Farmers will be reluctant to invest in robots until they are convinced they are economical. There is also the technical challenge. Picking soft fruits with anything approaching the speed and dexterity of a seasoned human hand may be years — if not decades — away.
Still, robots produced by the UK’s Garford Farm Machinery have already become skilled weeders, using a sensor to identify a plant and then hoe all around it. Robots have also moved up the food chain into the UK warehouses that serve the big supermarkets.
In the US, where President Trump’s immigration restrictions are threatening to limit farm workers from Mexico, Blue River Technologies, a California-based start-up, has raised $17m from Syngenta and Monsanto as well as Innovation Endeavors, the venture fund of Google chief executive Eric Schmidt.
Its tractor-towed machines can determine an individual plant’s needs and apply targeted treatment, reducing the use of chemicals “while capturing valuable plant-by-plant data”. In Japan, where an ageing population means many farmers are heading towards retirement, robots are growing lettuce — moving up and down aisles to plant, water, trim and harvest.
Developers say such efficiencies will make farm robots inevitable. But Brexit appears to have given them fresh impetus.
The unnamed company funding Mr From’s research, for example, is helping to pay for more than 30 scientists — something he interprets as a sign of their determination to make Thorvald more than a laboratory curiosity. “[They are] more or less desperate because they don’t know what the situation will be in two or three years,” he said.
By then, Britain should have formally exited the EU. Depending on what new arrangements are put in place, farmers could lose access to the tens of thousands of eastern European workers they have become reliant on to perform all the tasks that British workers can no longer be recruited to do.
British farms employed 22,517 EU-born workers in 2015, according to government estimates, about a fifth of the total. In food manufacturing factories, they accounted for 38 per cent of the workers. The agriculture and horticulture development board, a British trade group, believes the actual numbers are even higher.
“If the supply of labour cannot be maintained, or is significantly reduced, the implications for UK labour and the supply chain would be profound,” it concluded in a recent report.
In Lincolnshire, which delivered the highest proportion of Brexit votes, there are already signs that the supply of farm labour is becoming tighter — both because of the hostility to foreign workers kicked up by the referendum campaign and the subsequent weakening of the pound, which has made Britain a less attractive proposition for those seeking to send remittances back home.
“The industry’s starting to see a drift, and that’s starting to raise alarm bells. Both agriculture and food are looking for alternatives,” said Simon Pearson, director of Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology, which is planning a new £1m robotics building — ironically, with a grant from the EU.
Long before its Brexit fame, Lincolnshire was a birthplace of agricultural technology. Its tractors were the basis for the first tanks. They were widely deployed when labour became scarce after the first world war.
Even with the mechanisation of farming, paid labour has remained one of the biggest costs. Mr Pearson recalled seasonal workers descending on his family farm in Lincolnshire from around the UK in the 1980s. “There’d be minibuses of people driving in from all over the country to do a day of work,” he said. “It was amazing.”
They were succeeded by labourers from eastern Europe after Poland and other countries joined the EU in 2004.
Tom Duckett, a Lincoln computer scientist who is working on Thorvald, knows first-hand the grinding tasks they perform: As a student in Lincolnshire he worked on a pea inspection line. “It’s mind-numbingly boring,” he said. “People would sometimes stand up from the line and just fall over.”
He envisions a future when a farmer will be a “shepherd with a flock of robots”.
The low-hanging fruit, so to speak, are the “slaughter harvest” crops such as corn, which are harvested en masse. Selective harvests are far more challenging. A robot must use sensors to identify the individual fruit, determine its ripeness and then have the mechanical agility to remove it without causing damage.
Broccoli, which is relatively large and hearty, is one thing. But strawberries, which a skilled human manages to pick without touching the fruit, are quite another.
“I would say it’s 10 to 20 years before we can make a robot that can pick [a strawberry] at the same speed as a human,” Mr From said. “Raspberries are even harder.”