June 16, 2017

Robots as a Service: The future of farm automation?

Robots as a Service could provide the benefits of robotics without the upfront costs. Technology futurist Shara Evans discusses the potential for increasing production and reducing costs.

Mobile robots could soon take care of harvesting crops, targeting pests and removing weeds. Technology futurist Shara Evans discusses the possibility that Robots as a Service (RaaS) will provide farmers with affordable access to this ground-breaking technology.

A Queensland farmer knew he had aphids in his wheat crop but wasn’t sure of the extent of the infestation. He called in Queensland Drones, which flew one of their robots over his land.

“We were able to determine that about 34 of 160 acres were infested,” says General Manager of Queensland Drones, Tony Gilbert. “This was about two weeks before harvesting, so it allowed the owner to make a management decision about how to treat the aphids, and whether to treat just the affected area or the whole field.”

This is an example of Robots as a Service (RaaS), a way for farmers to benefit from the work that robots can perform without investing in the machines themselves. And, in the future, RaaS may not be limited to drones.

The challenge of finding workers 

As the population of remote areas continues to decline, the agriculture sector has been hit particularly hard by labour shortages. In its National Agriculture Workforce Development Plan, the National Farmers’ Federation reported that many small- and medium-sized businesses were struggling to secure workers, and that the greatest deficit was in the semi-skilled and unskilled categories.

Agricultural robots could help to solve the problem. Already, many dairy farmers are using automatic systems to milk more cows using fewer people. And, in some packing sheds, robots are lifting fruit and vegetables from a conveyor belt and positioning them in cartons, ready for display.

“In large businesses, where investment in automation makes sense, robots are already being integrated into the work environment,” says Shara Evans, a technology futurist, keynote speaker and Chief Executive Officer of Market Clarity, a technology analyst firm.

“Within the next few years, farmers with smaller businesses could be using robots to harvest their crops. This would significantly reduce labour costs and also reduce the pressure to find unskilled labour at particular times of year.”

Smaller, mobile robots known as AgBots are being designed to tackle a range of tasks such as targeted spraying, mechanically removing weeds and monitoring the environment as well as harvesting. And, rather than having to purchase a robot of their own, farmers may be able to rent one or use a robot-based service whenever it’s needed.

“In my opinion, there will be tremendous opportunities for agricultural companies to develop vertical segment expertise, leverage new technologies and offer RaaS to farmers or landowners of all sizes,” says Evans.

The best machine for the job

The cyclical nature of farming has always meant that some equipment is used sporadically. The same could be true of specialised robots.

“If you were buying a robot you’d want it to be as multifunctional as possible,” says Evans.

“But, if you were paying for it on a service basis, it wouldn’t matter if the provider used two or three completely different kinds of machine. You could benefit from having the best possible robot working on each task.”

Minimising downtime

Operating and maintaining a robot can also present challenges.

“These machines are extremely complex,” says Evans. “Smaller farms and agricultural businesses are unlikely to have people on their staff with the skills to minimise downtime. You also have to program a robot for the action you want it to perform or collect the information you want. You might need to integrate the software with cloud-based information such as weather reports, aerial images and satellite reports. You have to make sure the software stays up to date – and there’s a lot more work involved in extracting and analysing data or interpreting images than many people realise.

“All of this can get quite overwhelming even for tech-savvy farmers because it will keep them away from their core business.”

A complete service

RaaS can cover everything from establishing the potential of a robot to processing the data it collects. As such it could give farmers access to the very latest technology.

“There’s also the option of having a skilled operator on hand to rectify any technical issues so the RaaS provider could fine-tune the technology in the field,” says Evans. “It might also give farmers an opportunity to provide feedback that could shape a future design.”

Australian farmers have a long history of embracing innovation, from the stump jump plough of the 1800s to the latest satellite positioning systems. By making robots more affordable, RaaS could open the door to new opportunities for increased production and reduced costs.

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