From out of the labs and into the field, the development of advanced robotic technology and software applications is setting the stage for a future of automated crop production - agribotics.
The mechanization of the food industry is nothing new to investors or the general public...but the rise of automation of these processes has risen dramatic in recent years. From mechanically separated meats and poultry to the introduction of pneumatics and hydraulics into the packaging of foods, we have been moving steadily towards a future where the food we consume is untouched by human hands at nearly every level of production.
Scientists and engineers have recently turned their attention to the millions of farmers in the developed but also developing world who still work with human labor-intensive agricultural methods. These efforts are intended to bring some of the same advancements to the wheat, corn and soy fields that we have seen in abattoirs and food processing centers. From drones for spraying herbicides and pesticides to robots that allow a farmer to monitor soil quality in near-real-time, the agriculture sector is merging with the robotics sector to produce exciting new developments in an area known as Agribotics.
Beyond simply harvesting, processing, and feeding crops and livestock, the future of Agribotics is to supply farmers with real-time data that would previously have taken weeks to attain from State Departments of Agriculture (in the US) and other government agencies. Expensive, highly sophisticated technology such as that found in products like the AutoProbe by AgRobotics are making it quicker and easier to attain more comprehensive soil quality data than ever before. Check out the video below for a demonstration of how their tech works in conjunction with a tractor/ATV and GPS:
Other technologies supplement existing farm equipment with GPS-powered sensors. This can be seen in the areas of seeding, spraying, and weeding. Researchers in New South Wales, Australia, and at Louisiana State University in the USA have independently developed GPS-guided devices intended for use by both small- and large-scale farmers. Both the Australian and US groups hope to ultimately develop an autonomous “rover”-type device that will alleviate the need for a driver operating expensive farming equipment. Furthermore, solar power is becoming more prevalent in agriculture and irrigation equipment applications as the costs of the technology continue to decrease.
The future market for Agribotics looks bright. Ellen T. Curtiss and Susan Eustis of WinterGreen Research conducted market reasearch on Agribotics in a report released early in 2014 entitled “Agriculture Robots: Users Harness Robots to Plow, Plant, Spray, Prune, Milk, Pick, Shear, and Harvest”. Curtis and Eustis estimate that the Agribotics market will grow from an approximately $817 million in 2013 to $16+ billion by 2020. According to the report, "The key to industrial farm robots is keeping costs down. Adapting existing commercial vehicles instead of building new ones is the best way to build viable agricultural robots.”
Traditional robotics companies like ABB, Blue River Technology, iRobot, and Yamaha have began developing hardware solutions for farmers, while companies including IBM and Motorola Solutions are diversifying their product offerings in the creation of software to guide the powerful new agricultural hardware technologies.
Additionally, drone technology is poised to play a crucial role in the future of agriculture. Civilian drone development company Airware is currently using agriculture as a test market, after receiving a $10.7m investment from Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.
As this is a prime time for investment in this space, we've assembled the following DataFox watchlist to provide a look into the leading companies and investment firms that are dedicating resources to the agribotics industry. (Login required to view. Don't have a DataFox account? Signup for a risk-free 30 day trial.)
More resources on Agribotics:
- National Geographic has recently kicked off a series on the "Future of Food" with a central theme of that exploration being the automation of food production with robotics.
- Robotics Business Review: What Role Will Agribotics Play in the World Food Crisis?
- Blue River Technology Raises $10 Million for Ag Robotics Research