I, robotic farmer

In the near future, robots will transform farming but what will happen to farmers?

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Credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia/Wikipedia

Scientists at Bosch’s Deepfield Robotics division, in partnership with the German food and agriculture department, Osnabrück University, and Amazone, an agricultural machinery manufacturer, have built a robot called BoniRob that can perform the one job I have always wanted a robot to be able to do: Weed my garden.

Actually, this device couldn’t weed my garden, BoniRob is pretty big (roughly the size of a Fiat 500) and my garden is too small and too complex for the robot to move around easily. Nope, BoniRob is described as an “[adaptable] multi-purpose robotic platform” and the weeding part of it is a bolt-on module. Check out the video:

The weeding subsystem uses machine learning to recognize weeds and kills them using a punch less than half and inch wide to pound them into the ground and can perform herbicide (rimshot please) at the rate of two weeds per second. So, no chemicals are needed and the nutrients in the weeds are left in the ground. Nice.

This is a rather larger sized implementation of a vision of the future I’ve been forecasting for some time. Just imagine a strawberry farmer taking delivery of a box perhaps the size of a shipping container at the start of the growing season. It’s dropped off next to the barn, plugged in to electrical power, and switched on. Various raw materials are loaded into hoppers in the side of the box and, after some hours, out pops a spider-like machine, a farmbot about the size of a cat. The farmbot immediately scurries off to the field and starts working. 

robot athlete robot climbing a hill NASA/JPL


The farmbot is powered by a battery pack augmented by onboard solar panels and can operate for most of a day. When its power reserves get too low it returns to the factory for recharging and inspection. If it’s out of optimal specification, the factory breaks down the ‘bot and recycles the parts.

The farmbots don’t have much onboard processing beyond control systems for their locomotion as their intelligence is located back in the container factory which itself is a node of a cloud-based command and control system that constantly gathers data about field and weather conditions. The ‘bots communicate in an ad-hoc wireless mesh that relays connections back to the factory over several miles.

Back to the farmbot system: It knows what crop is being cultivated and the first ‘bot produced will go off to find the first row to “service.” This would be determined in advance by the farmer confirming on a satellite photograph, the field boundaries automatically identified when he identified his property the first time he hired the factory. 

The ‘bot notes the location of each plant and, inserting a probe, records the soil’s moisture content, temperature, pH value, and nutrient content for that specific plant. The 'bot also estimates the plant’s mass, “smells” for fruit ripeness, picks off any aphids, slugs, or other creepy crawlies, and pounds any surrounding weeds along with the pests into mush in the ground. Where nutrients are suboptimal, additional fertilizers are added in pellet form as close to the roots as possible to minimize waste. If diseases are detected (moulds, fungus, viruses, etc.) then samples are taken back to the factory for analysis and cloud-based diagnostics determine the best treatment strategy which may include the ‘bot returning with treatments such as customized anti-fungals).

As our ‘bot is working, more ‘bots are emerging from the factory and within a week hundreds of farmbots are in operation.  Every now and then a farmbot fails and a drone is dispatched from the factory to retrieve the ‘bot for recycling.

As the season progresses, the strawberries begin to ripen and the factory’s backend cloud services, knowing the packing, shipping, and transport logistics, have the ‘bots harvest the individual berries at optimal ripeness to maximize yield and price at the point of sale. The fruits are also graded with some ‘bots focussing on harvesting table quality fruit while other, less than perfect fruit, more suitable to the production of  jams and other products are picked by other farmbots.

An important function of the farmbots is keeping larger pests away and during the day they shoo away birds and other animals while at night ‘bots are dispatched to deal with vermin (sound and electrical shocks are used as deterrents).

When all the fruit has been harvested the farmbots are ingested by the factory and broken down and the whole system is shipped back to the manufacturer for refurbishment.

So, what are the upsides? Minimal use of chemical herbicides, optimal use of fertilizers (with virtually zero waste), improved yield, less loss to diseases, better product sales, and more efficient use of resources.

The downside? Farmers, as such, will no longer be farmers as we think of them. They’ll be caretakers. They won’t have to decide on what crops to grow because cloud-based, incredibly big data, deep learning, systems will have analyzed the weather and market forecasts, determined which crops will make the best return, and optimize the bejesus out of everything. Eventually, they'll be engineering the crops at the genetic level.

Farmers will really be there for handling truly unexpected issues such as the ‘bots finding a landmine or the farm being overrun by mutant feral pigs (at least, those that haven’t been shot by the autonomous anti-vermin drones). Fast forward a few years and, poof! No farmer required.

Ultimately food production will be completely out of the hands of fallible human beings and our relationship with food will be defined by political policies guided by intelligent systems which, if they decide that strawberries shouldn't be planted next season because (they tell us)  they predict that conditions will be right for an outbreak of this or that fungus which will reduce the crop by fifty percent, we'll respond with "sure, guess we're not eating strawberries this year."

Lest you think this is all too “far out” consider that work on small farmbots has already begun:

All sounds kind of horrific? Sure, but you can't stop progress and, by golly, your strawberries (when available, our robot overlord farmers willing) will be cheap, be absolutely perfect to look at, and taste incredible. You won't be complaining.

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