Take me to your seeder: Robots on the farm

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May 14, 2012 - 7:00pm

There's always work to be done on the farm, but often it's the same work, day after day. Parts of the job can start to feel a bit like an assembly line.

While it's impossible to automate farming like manufacturing, using robotic technology on the farm might not be so far off.

Photo by Jeremy Bernfeld, Harvest Public Media

Brent Ware, a member of the robotics team at Kansas State, stands next to a planting robot that won a national competition.

Farm robots in the classroom

The biological and agricultural engineering robotics team at Kansas State University knows a thing or two about agricultural robots. They've won national robotics competitions for the last five years.

Last year's entry is a little four-wheeled machine that drops coffee grains from its bottom at specific locations. It has three little sensors that read where the crops are; the robot travels the perimeter of the crop area and drops a grain of coffee every inch.

Though their robots are only prototypes - last year's robot is only ankle high and about a foot long - the principles they work with are ready for the farm.

More: See video of the robot in action

"It's building on what's currently there and looking toward what we would see happen in the future," said Joe Dvorak, a Kansas State graduate student and president of the robotics.

"The whole idea behind (the robots) is very applicable," he said. "If we're doing them on a small-scale, it just needs to be scaled up to work at a larger scale."

It sounds a bit crazy, right? It's like a science fiction novel: Robots running around the field, growing our food. In the "Star Wars" movies, moisture farmers use droids and robots on farms in a galaxy far, far, away. But they've also got flying cars.


Dairy farming is grueling work. Most dairy cows have to be milked two or three times a day and many dairies raise hundreds of cows in order to stay in the black.

Though it sounds futuristic, a robot designed to milk cows is very much the present. In fact, robotic dairy milkers have been on the global market since the '90s.

While human farmers aren't yet in danger of being booted off their land in favor of robots, dairy farmers who have embraced robotics are seeing dramatic changes in their work life.

Heading out to the field

Farmers today already rely heavily on advanced technology, like GPS systems, automatic dairy milkers and satellite imaging. That makes the jump to robotics a fairly small one, according to Jeremy Brown, president of Jaybridge Robotics. His Massachusetts-based company makes software that helps turn regular machinery into robotic machinery for commercial use.

"Robotics and autonomy become appropriate where you have a situation which is dull, which is dirty or which is dangerous," Brown said.

Sounds like farming. So much so, in fact, that Jaybridge and tractor manufacturer Kinze have already developed a robotic tractor. It's set to head to market in limited release this fall.

To be clear: robot tractors. In the field. This fall. It's possible, Brown said, because most farms are already technologically advanced.

"We took several major steps, and I don't want to downplay that, but I was just astonished at how high-tech farming had already become - it was an incredible place to start building from," he said.

It's all thanks to sensors. They're continuously becoming more advanced, more rugged and cheaper, so they can be used in the field.

At its core, robotics is all about a machine reacting to the world around it. We already have tractors that drive in super-straight lines by themselves thanks to GPS auto-steer technology. Throw in sensors that do things like allow it to back up, change gears when heading up or downhill, and detect objects in the field, and you've got a robot harvesting your wheat.

After Kinze's robot tractor hits showroom floors, expect to see more ag robot products soon, Brown said.

"The capital equipment costs for farming is already enormous, right? Hundreds of thousands of dollars for each piece of equipment you get," Brown said. "Once you're dealing on that scale, the capital cost of the autonomy capability, I don't think (it) presents a real showstopper."

Labor demands

Head out on the farm today, though, and you won't see many robots. The advanced machinery many farmers already have is still doing the trick. But that will change eventually, said Dr. Tom Zhang, a professor in the biological and agricultural engineering department at Kansas State and the robotics team's mentor.

"There is one thing that will actually accelerate these kinds of things," Zhang said, referring to a declining labor force in places like Japan, South Korea and even China, pushing robots into the mainstream faster. That might be a harbinger for U.S. farms.

"Eventually, we'll need to have much more robotic - automated - machines, so that farmers do not have to use that many farmers to do the farming work," Zhang said. "That will happen eventually, but it's not going to happen very quickly like in Japan, like in South Korea, like in China."

The benefits to robotic technology on the farm are clear: cut down on labor costs, which can often make up a significant part of a farmer's budget. With fewer young people taking up farming and wanting to live rural lives, and immigration crackdowns spooking a large part of the farm workforce, a robot farmhand will only look more appealing.

Especially when you consider that most big demand for labor only arises two or three times a year, like planting and harvest. It's hard for a farmer to employ year-round the laborers he needs for the busy times. A robot able to do some of that work could help.

"The farmers, actually, have been quite enthusiastic in seeing what this can do, and how this can help them have predictable harvest times and be able to do longer hours with fewer people, if necessary," Brown said.

Farm robots in the future

Does this spell the end for the flesh-and-blood human farmer? Absolutely not.

Today's modern farmer is the CEO of his or her farm, every day making important business decisions, using complex financial instruments and managing a workforce. That won't change. Even Brown, the robotic software engineer, said his company isn't trying to replace farmers - only help them.

"There's very much a human element in all of the business decisions and all of the equipment selection and maintenance and fleet decisions," Brown said. "I don't think you're going to eliminate the farmer with automation."

Farmers are businesspeople. If it's safe and it can help them squeeze more profit from their business, most conventional farmers will sign on.

With robots on the way, the role of the farmer may have to change to adapt to new tools. But they've done that for centuries. See many oxen teams around?

Still, the farmer of the future isn't a robot. Even in our wildest imaginations, we still rely on human experience.

"Even if we look at Star Wars,' just to run with that, Luke's aunt and uncle were human farmers," Brown pointed out, laughing. "They had robot farmhands."

Robot farmhands of the future, though? It's rapidly changing from science fiction, to science fact.



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