RobotsSeptember 15th, 2020
I have liked robots ever since I began reading about them as a kid. This picture is the cover of science fiction paperback I’ve read and reread ever since it was published in 1956. In those days Asimov and many others envisioned robots in the shape of people, but the robots that are at work today seldom need to look like people.
Manufacturing firms have been using increasingly sophisticated robots – automation in various forms – since the 1950s. Now as software and sensor designs improve, agriculture is increasingly utilizing them.
With automation comes increasing job opportunities for bright young people, a strengthened and modernized US manufacturing skill base, and reduced risk to our food supply chain.
It’s all good news.
Crop farming (growing corn, soybeans, wheat and hay) is now entirely mechanized. Crop farmers work 1500 acre (sometimes much larger) farms with a handful of people, none of whom are doing unskilled hand labor. Using databases developed from drone flights and continuous soil and leaf sensing, automation is significantly improving efficiency in seeding, chemical application rates and irrigation to preserve the soil, increase yields, and reduce fuel and chemical use.
I have ridden around in a modern seeding machine similar to this one and it is amazing. The entire operation is automated. The operator is there only to monitor the machine and the software. (photo by John Deere company)
Now produce farmers (tomatoes, apples, nuts, strawberries, citrus,, etc.) are introducing automation. Reducing the amount of mindless, back-breaking work that humans have to do to grow food has been the objective of agricultural advances since the dawn of history. Soon unskilled hand labor can be eliminated in produce farms, just as it has been in crop farms.
Automating produce picking and packing reduces the risk of food chain disruption due to contagions like COVID-19 and the reduced demand for unskilled labor will alleviate some of the endless emigration strife at our borders.
On the left is a strawberry picking machine at work on a Florida farm; on the right is old-style hand picking. The photos are by Zack Wittman from a February 17, 2019 Washington Post Article written by Danielle Paquette.
Automation will not eliminate the many small farm-to-market farms where produce is grown by hand and sold locally. In fact these small farms will flourish.
They give consumers a choice of food sources which is important to a healthy economy.
But these farms are a lot of work, and the number one reason that small farm-to-market operators ultimately quit is burnout due to the amount of labor involved.
But the next generation of enthusiasts will take their place because these small farms are labors of love.
Speaking of the next generation, I am always greatly impressed when I attend a function at the University of Missouri College of
Engineering. I find the students incredibly smart and highly motivated. They will be the ones designing and manufacturing future generations of agricultural automation. And since many of the agricultural automation manufacturing firms are located in the US, they will help keep the US competitive in the world economy.
Another educational institution that will play a major role in agricultural automation is State Tech College (www.statetechmo.edu, formerly called Linn Tech) right here in central Missouri.
Tomorrow, when a young technician drives her service truck out to repair an automated apple picking machine, or a giant corn harvester, she will have with her a computer tablet with detailed information on the machine. She’ll determine what the problem is using her own training and experience, diagnostic software, and data from the manufacturer. If the problem is a worn or broken part, she can manufacture one on the spot using the 3D printer (additive manufacturing) in her truck, install it, and the machine is up and running.
Asimov may have gotten the shape of robots wrong, but he understood their purpose quite well. And I think he would have liked knowing that the robots have arrived.
I do too.