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Going small: Could the Farm of the Future be a Roboticized Micro-farm?

By Team InOrbit

It’s easy to see why many in the robotics community are suggesting that agriculture is the next big market for automation. With the need to support an estimated 9 billion people on the planet in 2050, current forms of production need an additional boost that automation can provide. Like other industries, agriculture also faces labor challenges including a shortage of skilled workers, an unstable supply chain and complex safety concerns due to the pandemic.

Unfortunately, we can’t just wave a magic wand and conjure up a singular, perfect robot to solve these issues. As with many industries, robotics and automation require different robot designs to tackle the various tasks needed to improve agricultural efficiencies. For example, we’ve seen mobile robot systems that can weed a field, follow an apple picker, pick fruits like strawberries, and clean up manure in a barn. Piloted and autonomous drones fly over fields with cameras and sensors that can detect moisture levels, crop yields, and provide other data insights to farmers. You can learn more about the different robotic systems being developed for agricultural use by reading our free InOrbit whitepaper.

Many of these emerging systems are designed for large-scale agricultural operations that can afford pilot projects with robotics startups. Less attention is paid to the small acreage farmer, which may be more important to the future of farming in the long-term.

Over the past year-and-a-half we’ve witnessed a severe disruption in the supply chain around the world due to COVID-19. The pre-pandemic sentiment was that a distributed supply chain with factories producing goods in primarily inexpensive labor markets such as China, Mexico and other countries provided the best value for wealthier Western countries. But with many factories around the world shutting down due to the pandemic, a ripple effect of cascading shortages tore through key industries. These ripples are still causing backups at major port cities where logistics providers can’t find enough shipping containers, and the cost of gasoline is still unstable, to name a few examples.

In the retail and package delivery sector, companies are considering the concept of micro-factories and micro-fulfillment centers, where products are produced and delivered closer to the customer rather than relying on long-haul shipping and trucking. This not only saves on fuel costs, but also contributes to sustainability efforts to protect the environment.

The same concept could be applied to agriculture, with smaller technology-driven farms producing crops for localized markets. This allows consumers to rely less on giant farms shipping goods from around the world that require trucks and ships to stock grocery stores. In addition, out-of-season produce that once relied on these transportation methods can now be produced via indoor vertical farming efforts (we are taking a keen interest in CubicFarm Systems and their technologies). More focus is still needed to develop technologies tailored to small farms.

Lalitha Visveswaran, a California small acreage urban farmer, has discussed this idea with us here at InOrbit. “Having more small acreage farms offer the benefits of reducing food miles, minimizing food waste, improving habitats and shortening the supply chain of fresh local produce,” she says.

For the small farmer, robotics and automation is key in several areas. “Labor costs eat away a huge chunk of the profit margin,” says Visveswaran. “Automation of repetitive manual tasks would delegate the dirty and dangerous low-paying jobs to robots and intelligent machines. Agtech is specifically designed for larger farms, but the need is even more urgent for smaller farms. Sadly, there isn’t enough focus or initiative to foster small acreage farms by providing them with appropriate modern technology.”

Visveswaran will be the special guest at our upcoming webinar that discusses the challenges of robotics in the agriculture sector. The free 30-minute webinar “AgTech and the Future of Robotic Farming at Scale” will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 8 a.m. PDT (11 a.m. EDT). Reserve your spot today to hear about the future of multi-robotic systems within agriculture operations.