Thursday, May 23, 2019

Robot wars

July 4, 2016 by  
Filed under Fen Tiger


Farm jobs are increasingly being done by robots, laments Fen Tiger, who still likes to get his hands (and face) dirty.

I have just finished watching one of the Transformer films. The film got me thinking – about automation on farms as well as the must-have attractive young actress.

Every day at the moment seems to bring news of some new robot designed to increase farm efficiency. Not so long ago, a local large farmer employed several men to work around the clock in various shifts to help establish the spring crops.

One of these fell men asleep at the wheel. He was lucky not be injured after managing to put a Challenger and implement into the nearest drain. If robots replace us humans, I am assuming tiredness does not affect machines.

Other factors make the replacement of humans increasingly likely when it comes to agriculture. We have already seen it in the automotive industry and at the supermarket checkout, where we scan our own items without the need for a cashier. Farming is set to follow too.

Although now decided, the EU referendum highlighted the importance of labour to agriculture. And with tighter regulations on migrant workers and a possible smaller labour pool from which to draw, robots look certain to take an increasingly important role in farming.

First robotic farm

Cows have long been milked by robot on a farms where labour and cash are in short supply. Now the horticultural sector is set to follow, with the world’s first fully robotic farm due to open next year in Japan. The indoor lettuce farm will be completely tended by robots and computers.

The company involved expects the lettuces growen to be cheaper and much better for the environment. And with an ageing population in Japan, employing robots seems to be a partial answer to the country’s agricultural labour shortage.

Like Britain, Japan’s average farming age is close to 60. And, as I have mentioned in the past, many farming factories use hydroponics to grow crops and rely on computers and hi-tech monitoring systems to control internal environments.

At present, robots are not able to plant the seeds and humans are still required to see whether the seeds have germinated. But the new Japanese farm intends that robots will soon control all environmental factors – from seed time through to harvest.

These robots won’t look like something out of Star Wars. And nor will they resemble us humans. Instead, they will consist of conveyor belts with arms that can water, trim, harvest and – in the future – transplant seedlings.

I have no idea when the driverless tractor will become a commercial reality for day-to-day tasks like wheat drilling and crop spraying. But I am sure it will be popular when it arrives – so long as it eliminates the electrical faults common in many modern tractors.

Robotic dog

Developments are coming on apace. Australian researchers have developed a robotic dog that keeps cows in line, like the old fashioned cattle drive. It uses 2d sensors and global positioning to herd the cows where they need to go.

Then there is the self-propelled French robot for pruning grape vines and keeping an eye on their health. And the local nursery has replaced manual labour to move potted plants using robots with rolling gripper like arms and trays.

The robots pick up the plants, carry them to the correct locations and place them on arrival. Yes, the human touch is still required to first place plant locations onto a screen. But the robots then take over. It seems only a matter of time before humans are made redundant altogether.

Worryingly, perhaps, for us mortals, experts predict that within 20 years almost half of all jobs could be done by robots – although I doubt they will be able drive a combine and then get out to remove an old washing machine dumped into a standing crop of wheat.

And what will happen when a farm robot goes wrong. Will it be able to shut down on its own or dial 999 if a fire starts? When it comes to late-at-night harvest repairs, I imagine we will still be reliant on human intervention to do the donkey work as usual.

Drones are already replacing agronomists – for some jobs at least. But farming is such a hands-on job that I can’t
see it being automated completely, which means the dirt-on-your-face farmer is safe – for the time being at least, I hope.


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