Arable crop production using robots is now an economic reality – and could boost incomes on family farms, say researchers.
Technological advances mean medium-sized farms can now grow arable crops at almost minimum cost levels using autonomous equipment, according to a paper by scientists at Harper Adams University.
Published in the journal Precision Agriculture, the study says using robots could mean greater independence for farmers, an opportunity for smaller farms to be more competitive and less need for growers to “get big or get out” of arable production.
The paper is the first of its kind to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Based on the university’s Hands Free Farm experiment, it is the work of four scientists – James Lowenberg-DeBoer, Richard Godwin, Karl Behrendt and Kit Franklin.
Professor Lowenberg-DeBoer said: “The Hands Free Farm is a great place to study the economics of crop robotics, which is presently a very sparsely researched area.
“As far as I can tell, this is the
one place on earth – certainly within the public sector – where you can get information about a whole cycle
for comparing results of the kind we did, particularly with autonomous equipment.”
The researchers used data gained from the Hands Free Farm to show how crop robotics could be applied to arable agriculture – drawing upon actual field experience and real-life data unavailable to many other studies of crop robotics.
Prof Lowenberg-DeBoer said: “Because the Hands Free Hectare used retrofitted conventional equipment, we know the costs of each piece of that equipment – you can work that out using the cost of the conventional equipment.
“It is a much better place to set out this kind of analysis from. The idea was to produce an economic study to help engineers and investors establish the best use of this equipment.
“Much of this technology is becoming readily available and is almost there – and the Hands Free Farm showed it was possible.”
The study confirmed that the cost of farming with the autonomous equipment used on the Hands Free Farm was substantially lower than on conventional farms. This was because the equipment involved is smaller and used far more extensively.
The paper says: “The ability to achieve near minimum production costs at relatively smaller farm sizes, and with a modest equipment investment, means that the pressure for farming businesses to continually seek economies of scale is diminished
“This provides the opportunity for modest size grain enterprises to become profitable instead of being a lifestyle choice.”
By reducing the need for labour and equipment investment, these smaller enterprises could be combined with livestock, on-farm value added activities or off farm employment to provide enough income for family needs, suggests the paper.
Prof Lowenberg-DeBoer added: “People who talk about autonomy sometimes say ‘but what about all those people who will lose their jobs?’ – but in arable agriculture, those jobs have already gone.
“What autonomy can do is help create new opportunities. With autonomous equipment, for instance, it will be possible for many more farms to become organic.
“With autonomous equipment, and a little bit of artificial intelligence, you can create machinery which enables farmers to do things at much more competitive prices.
“So if the policy framework around autonomous equipment is well-aligned, it can help to create new opportunities for farming – and new opportunities for young people.”