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Challenges in the Agricultural Industry to Drive Automation

Sagie Evbenata
Jun 23, 2020


The shortage of agricultural labor supply has been a global challenge. Agricultural labor has declined in its appeal for several reasons including low wages, physically demanding work, urbanization, and aging populations. In high income nations especially, the industry has been supported by foreign workforces, often seasonal and made possible by relaxed visa requirements. Labor shortages are increasing the cost of labor, which is a concern in a low margin industry. The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated this, and it is realistic to expect migrant workers to continue to fear contracting the disease through travel, and social distancing measures have an effect on workforce efficiency. 

The other major industry challenge is the increasing demand for food as the global population surges to 8.5 billion by 2030. Consumer requirements are also changing as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, with growing concerns for the handling of food by other people and the additional demand for certain fruits and vegetables as people increasingly work from home.

Robotractors Are on Their Way

Automation in the agricultural sector can help alleviate these labor and demand challenges and has been in development since the 1950s. Automated technologies in tractors bring the benefits of greater efficiency and reliability to improve crop yields over longer working hours. Driverless tractors are in their concept stage and are being developed by the leading tractor OEMs, including John Deere, CNH, and AGCO. While automated tractors may not initially reduce the requirement for people sitting in tractors, they could enable human operators to improve their productivity while not driving, allowing operators to complete other business tasks such as operations planning, sales, and engaging with customers. 

Fully automated tractors remain years away from mainstream commercial deployment and investments in their development are low in comparison with the automotive industry. Despite their technological advantages, the high costs of their automated driving systems and electric powertrains currently put automated tractors at a disadvantage relative to conventional diesel engines. Furthermore, there is some resistance to the technology from traditional farmers that have worked on family owned farms for decades. Potentially bridging this gap, John Deere has developed a concept of a pod packed with lidar and cameras that can be wired to a conventional tractor to enable automated operation. This could be a short-term offering while the technology matures and costs decrease.

Farming as a Service

The high costs of automated tractors are the biggest obstacle to adoption. Early models can cost around $500,000, compared with popular midsized tractors, which are typically around $100,000. Farming as a service (FaaS) could be a viable model to increase their adoption by reducing CAPEX costs and the investment risks to the farmer. Custom farming has existed for decades, FaaS modernizes this concept by incorporating Internet of Things, computing, data analytics, vehicle and drone automation, and precision agricultural technologies. 

A prime example is Chicago-based Sabanto, currently deploying automated tractors, equipped with automated control and precision planting technologies. The tractors are part of a FaaS offering employing connected edge computing to maximize productivity.

The Small Robot Company is a London-based FaaS startup, building its offering around even smaller robots provided on a subscription model. These small robots weigh around 50 kg and pose a lower safety risk to humans, reduce soil compaction, and use AI to identify and electrocute weeds, minimizing herbicide usage.

Though automated tractors are several years away from being a mature commercial offering, they are likely to have a significant role in feeding a growing global population. The technology is aided by other agriculture technology automation innovations such as drones, agricultural robots, and automated implements, which are being adopted more rapidly.