As lawmakers continue to struggle with a comprehensive fix to the immigration system to provide farms with a stable source of documented workers, the agriculture sector is moving ahead with new mechanization innovations.

A day of fully-automated machines whizzing around farm fields, harvesting grain, picking fruit and vegetables, and milking cows still seems far off. While the technology for many of the machines exists, farmers and scientists face several challenges including cost, liability, and labor issues.

Qin Zhang, senior scientist at the Center for Automated Agriculture at Washington State University, said he expects robotics to enter the agricultural equipment market fully when the costs become more reasonable, with standard tractors the first to be replaced.

“When you see a robotic tractor, it looks like a regular tractor,” Zhang said. “You tell the tractor where to go, it finds the field and plows, pulls back in and shuts down.” An unmanned tractor can add a further cost of between $10,000 and $20,000 above the price of a standard tractor, Zhang said. “The market is not ready for that yet,” he said.

Most of the success with robotics has come in the harvesting of grain crops, while other areas such as apple-picking pose more challenges in regards to speed and efficiency. “For a robot to find an apple, we need to find a way to reach the apple and grab the apple, and there are endless choices,” Zhang said.

The technical challenges are exacerbated by the fact that no two trees are identical, he said, so scientists have been working with horticulturalists to modify the shape of the apple tree to make it more machine-friendly. Current robots cannot pick fruit nearly fast enough to handle the 17 billion apples produced each year in Washington state alone, he said.

Despite these challenges, Zhang is confident that robots will eventually be used on a large scale to pick apples and other produce – at least for processing purposes, such as for use in juices or sauce. “Fresh produce has many more challenges,” Zhang said.

Zhang agreed that the push for robotics could grow with the continued lack of a seasonal workforce and with increased demand for food, which many say will raise by 50 percent by 2050.

Yet, Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers noted that agricultural businesses “will need people to drive the machines, fix the machines.”

What’s more, human workers are better at differentiating between quality crops and rotten or immature crops. “A machine can’t tell the difference,” Nicholson said. “A machine can’t tell between a good and bad green bean.”

Manoj Karkee, assistant professor at the Biological Systems Engineering Center for Automated Agriculture at Washington State University, said it is only a matter of time before robots become commonplace on the farm.

Karkee noted the federal government has begun to provide funding for research and universities have ramped up studies. His team has received funding through the National Science Foundation to create robots for apple-picking, Karkee said.

While Karkee said some of the robots can pick an apple in a few seconds, bruising, which happens even in hand picking, remains a concern. Karkee said computers in the packing houses can sort out bruised apples.

Karkee said an apple harvester being developed in New Zealand will be self-powered and cost between $150,000 and $200,000 per machine to produce. The consumer price would likely be higher.

Nick Tindall, director of government affairs at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, said fully-automated tractors are unlikely to make a large presence soon in the United States because of liability issues and because many U.S. fields are not large enough for practical use of the machines.

“There’s just a huge liability issue,” Tindall said. “You don’t want a software hiccup and it hits something.”

Tindall said a first step may be using a human driver on one standard tractor leading robotic tractors. “We’re at the dawn of this,” he said.

He said more progress is being made in fully-automated milking machines where lasers are being used to guide attachments to a cow’s nipples. Use of the milking machines, which began in the 1990s, continues to increase across the nation. The machines are directed by computers, smartphone applications and computer chips in cows’ collars.

While widespread use of robots to replace farm workers may be in the future, the deployment of drones – small, unmanned aircraft that can take pictures of crops and collect data – is already here.

Kevin Price, Kansas State University agronomist, recently told an American Farm Bureau Federation convention that drones – hold great promise for agriculture.

 “The biggest challenge is extracting useful data from the tons of it that is collected,” Price said. “New software needs to be created that can take data and transform it into useful information.”

He said 80 percent of economic income from drone technology would come from the agriculture sector.

Recently, six states were selected by the Federal Aviation Administration to serve as test sites for drones. The states include Alaska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Texas and Virginia.


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