Meet Your Local Farmer Bot

Not so much the dream of the far future, agricultural robots are nearly ready for prime time

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Robots are taking jobs wherever you look, from light construction to energy infrastructure installation to stocking shelves. But one of the greatest transformations to come of the ongoing robot revolution may be in the effect they have on one of humankind’s oldest professions. Yes, that one, probably—but also farming.

The idea of the automated farm of the future is by no means novel, but only recently has it become feasible. In recent decades, some more experimentally inclined farmers have toyed with self-driving tractors and other ways of automating conventional farm tools. But the real rural robot revolution will likely be very different says Taylor Dobbs for PBS’ NOVA Next.

While the self-driving tractors make for a fantastic show, they are just the beginning. Precision agriculture is still in its early stages. If these were the early days of the personal computer revolution, Mulligan Farm would be a small garage in Silicon Valley in the 1970s. And like that moment in history, the possibilities for precision agriculture today are seemingly endless.

“The near future of American farming,” says Dobbs, “may, in some ways, more closely resemble the distant past.”

Instead of a massive machines slowly combing over vast swaths of land, scores of individual laborers will work their own small sections, one row, one plant at a time. The only difference is they will be robots, working day or night, continuously streaming data about growth rates, soil fertility, water usage, and more to the farm office.

Robotic tractors, says Dobbs, could be replaced by little crawlers and flying drones. New Scientist last year showcased a prototype of a little farmer bot.

New Scientist:

Whereas other automated systems are designed to replace people with electronics – tractors that drive themselves, for example – Dorhout’s approach is to improve the farming process. By providing assistance, a robot swarm allows farmers to focus on the science and business side of their operation. “The farmer is like the shepherd that gives the robot instructions,” says Dorhout. Robots are also able to transcend the limitations of farm equipment to maximise efficiency, for example by planting in a grid instead of rows.

Steady progress is being made in robot agriculture, says the Associated Press in a review of the nascent field. But, the AP writes, so far we’ve seen just the beginning: “Most ag robots won’t be commercially available for at least a few years.”

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