Future of Farming
January 27, 2022

Why we need robots in agriculture (and why they need us)

Written By:
Adrian Battiston, Robotic System Integration Manager

I was exposed to robotics at a young age. When I was a kid, instead of Lego bricks, my parents gifted me one of the early versions of Lego Mindstorms—a mini computer that lets you add actuators and sensors to classic Lego. So instead of building a blocky - and completely inaccurate - representation of the ‘Taj Mahal’ (garnished with pirates and scuba divers), I was covering the floors of our house with parallel strips of black and white tape, and building a line following robot that had the ‘Taj Mahal’ on top of it.

But even with that young exposure, I didn’t find my true passion for robotics until I was studying at university.  

“I found myself more and more enthralled by the intricate harmony between the physical system and the electronics and software that moved it.”

Now, I get to pair my fascination with purpose, and collaborate with a team of specialized scientists and engineers to transform how food is grown around the world.  

Agriculture is ready to be enabled by innovation

Agriculture is reaching its tipping point with technology right now. Farmers everywhere are facing increasingly extreme weather events, growing pest pressure and the looming need to feed a growing global population—all while absorbing the risks that are ‘the nature of the industry’.  

In the past, conventional agricultural practices helped farmers fend off a lot of the short-term risks they faced, but we now know that a lot of these methods have caused significant long-term damage. This big issue has presented a big opportunity – not only to help heal the land of each farmer but to help heal our planet as a whole.

At Terramera, for example, we’re developing robotic solutions to help farmers better understand the risks—and the options—they have to transition to regenerative practices that will improve crop quality, increase profits, and make farms more resilient, all the while sequestering CO2.

Robots are everywhere. And they have a role to play in the future of agriculture

‘Robot’ can mean different things depending on who you are. For some it conjures thoughts of humanoid automatons, R2-D2 or Optimus Prime, for others it’s an autonomous car or a Roomba, and for some it’s a sprawling automated assembly line. I tend to lump anything that moves under the control of software into the broad category of ‘a robot’ (yes, it’s broad I know, things like the engine in most modern cars would be considered a robot - or diving deeper, a phone that can vibrate - but you try debating it). With that definition, robots are literally everywhere!

Looking around Terramera, and focussing on the more complex ‘robots’, we have pipetting robots to accelerate lab work, automation systems to assist in plant growth and assessment, 3D printers and CNCs for manufacturing, and a fleet of drones and rovers for autonomously collecting data in the field.

Like the humble earthworm, not-so-humble complex robots are working their way to becoming a farmer’s best friend too. Robots can harvest greens, pick tomatoes and zap away weeds without a drop of pesticide. Drones gather aerial images that can help farmers quickly assess crop health, and sophisticated robotic greenhouses—like our own climate-controlled automated growth chambers—are popping up in unlikely regions, growing food in highly populated areas.  

As robots take on more responsibility, failures can result in serious outcomes, like loss of life. Taking that further, as many movies, books, and stories do, robots can come out looking just plain evil when people fixate on the negative outcomes that are possible from their growing dominance in our lives. Still, robots are here to stay, and currently they are making powerful technological advances to revolutionize the way we grow food, we just need to make sure they’re created properly and ethically.

So, robots versus humans? Here’s why we need them (and why they need us)

Robots are better at anything repetitive and precise

Robots - 1 Humans – 0

How many screws can you put in at once? Two? Maybe four if your feet are really nimble. And unless you’ve trained for years, I’d bet you’d have a hard time holding a tool with submillimeter precision for more than a few seconds. Robots can be built to do multiple things in parallel, repeating the same task with minimal loss of precision for days on end. While having robots take over jobs scares some people, giving menial tasks to robots tends to actually create more jobs, and those jobs are generally more interesting. At Terramera, our rover and the payload we developed allow us to test soil at precise depths without time and labour-intensive manual soil sampling, freeing up time for our soil team to do more interesting and in-depth analysis.

Robots are better at performing boring or under stimulating tasks

Robots - 2 Humans – 0

You know who doesn’t love doing the dishes? Everyone. You know who doesn’t (currently) contain the capacity for love and boredom? A robot. Robots are made to perform boring, under stimulating tasks. So, while it’s another score for Team Robot, I take this as a win for the humans.

Robots are better at tasks that require extra-sensory perception

Robots - 3 Humans – 0

Us lucky humans can experience the sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory tastes on our chosen pizza toppings—but our senses are limited in comparison to our fabricated counter parts. Can you see in multiple directions or in different spectra? We’ve taught robots how to interpret hyperspectral images so they can detect very small changes in the physiology of plants. In turn, this helps farmers better measure, monitor, predict, plan and care for their crops.

Humans are better at creative tasks

Robots - 3 Humans – 1

Humans are better at being creative; but robots can be creative. In reality, the tricky part here is that we’re still learning what makes humans creative, and where new ideas come from. On the other hand, a painting created by an algorithm recently sold for more than 432K. Many examples show that while robots can generate creative work by being fed information by humans, they lack emotion, and the understanding to produce powerfully creative work, and the debate is ongoing on when or if we’ll be able to recreate that ability.

Humans are better at interacting with novel scenarios

Robots - 3 Humans – 2

Robots are often taught to perform tasks in routine but can’t make decisions when faced with novel scenarios. For example, self-driving cars perform very well when driving along well-known routes. But add in an unexpected weather event, or a few plastic bags being blown in the wind – a scenario where there’s little or no training data – and the perception system has a hard time making an informed decision. People are working on this by creating more thorough and robust datasets in the agricultural domain, like this one of humans in all poses in apple and orange orchards, so that robots can be made to work safely everywhere.

Humans are better at Hugs

Robots - 3 Humans – 3

We’re just better at it... for the time being. It’s not that people aren’t working on it, it’s just yet to be seen if a hug from an automoton will provide the same health benefits as a hug from a human.

Ultimately, robots can do many of the jobs we’d rather not do, which allows us to concentrate and focus on more important tasks, like healing our planet. Scaling regenerative agriculture globally requires all hands on deck—human or bionic.

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