As a kid, one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was “The Jetsons.” One of the more endearing characters on the show was George’s futuristic maid, Rosie the Robot.
Fast forward to the future, and Rosie is real. Her real-world prodigy has made a presence into our living rooms and onto our lawns. The Roomba vacuum is one of the most familiar names associated with the term “robots.” Just search YouTube for “house cats riding Roombas,” and you’ll begin to realize that these devices have become as accepted in our homes as Rosie was with the Jetsons.
Rosie, Roombas And Precision Ag. Look at where things are headed. Lately, the mainstream media have been infatuated with driverless cars and Amazon drones. Domino’s now has unmanned pizza delivery vehicles in Europe. A Texas lawn care company named Robin uses 50 robotic lawnmowers, and it has plans to roll out 50 to 100 more of those mowers every month. That got me thinking about how robots will shape agriculture’s future and how close that day really is.
A few months back, there was some hoopla surrounding CNH’s debut of its autonomous tractor. While a space-age cabless, driverless horse of a tractor certainly is good for racking up hits on YouTube, it probably isn’t the first or even second big thing that will come to represent agriculture’s robotic revolution.
In some ways, this revolution has already started, albeit subtly. It has creeped onto many farms via the smartphone. Most likely, “there’s an app for that” when it comes to recently introduced farm automation products. Companies such as AgSense have apps that allow you to control and monitor center-pivot irrigation systems without constant on-site babysitting of each one of them. Companies such as OPIsystems can monitor and manage grain with sensors inside your bins. These sensors are connected to an online OPI Blue account. If you have a hot spot in one bin, then you can be anywhere in the world and turn on the bin fan with the OPI app.
Where We’re Headed. Farm automation is going to be a big deal. The industry calls this continued addition of connected devices the “Internet of Things” or IoT for short. According to a study from OnFarm, using “connected devices” increased yields on the average farm by 1.75%. Energy costs dropped $7 to $13 per acre. Water use for irrigation fell by 8%. Add up all that, and you’re talking some real money! With those figures in mind, it is easy to acknowledge the fact that IoT device installations are projected to grow from 30 million in 2015 to well more than 75 million by 2020.
The next generation of devices will be smarter and do even more.
Here’s just one example. A company called Blue River Technology based in Sunnyvale, Calif., is building the world’s first “see and spray” sprayer. Using sensors, cameras and computers with “facial recognition” technology, this sprayer seeks out and destroys weeds among the growing plants. Such robotic technology could reduce chemical use by as much as 90%. Plus, it could be a real win in the war against herbicide-resistant weeds.
Just imagine a fleet of Roomba-like “smart sprayers” patrolling your corn and bean fields day and night. Those sprayers could do everything from spray weeds to scout for insects and diseases to take on-the-go nitrogen readings. Get ready. The rise of the robots on the farm is about to take root—for real.