Robot Farmers Could Be the Future of Food

Machines could make fields more productive and solve farm labor shortage.

Farming, the oldest industry on the planet, has been slow to adapt new technology. But that should change in the near future, as farmers increasingly turn to robots to do everything from driving tractors and picking crops to deciding what sort of seeds to plant and where to plant them.

Experts say that robotic technology is needed for farms to cope with labor shortages, as they boost productivity to supply the increasing amounts of food that the world's growing population will demand in the years ahead.

"In 1950, each farmer had to produce enough food for 10 people," explains Susan Eustis of WinterGreen Research, a Lexington, Mass.-based forecasting firm. "By 2014, he had to produce enough for 150." By early in the next decade, with the help of technology, "we think he'll be producing enough food to feed 500."

Eustis predicted that by 2020, global agriculture will be spending $25 billion a year on robotics - not including aerial drones, which already are being used to keep an eye on crops.

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Energid Technologies, a Cambridge, Mass.-based software and robotics firm, is one of the companies hoping to lead that revolution. Already, Energid has developed an experimental robot that would ride around Florida orange groves in the back of a truck, picking the fruit so that it can be made into juice.

James English, Energid's chief technology officer, says that the automaton, which should be on the market in a few years, uses computers and color cameras to identify the location of each piece of fruit and guide the robotic arm. The machine can perform the grueling work of 10 fruit pickers, though it still requires a human to drive the truck - at least until fully-autonomous farm vehicles hit the market.

While the machine may not be as gentle with the oranges as human hands would, that's not as big of an issue with oranges used for making juice. "You don't care about scars and scuffs on the fruit," he explains.

But robots can do more than just reduce the amount of labor required to produce food. Self-taught robotics researcher David Dorhout, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, has developed an experimental "autonomous micro planter" named Prospero. He envisions a future in which armies of Prospero-like bots swarm over every inch of farm fields, analyzing subtle variations in soil and moisture, and deciding what variety of corn to plant in each section of a field for optimum productivity.

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"You'll be able to give general instructions to a thousand small robots that will carry them out," Dorhout explains. "It's not replacing the farmer, but extending him. If you could put this much time and effort into the decision about what seeds to plant, you'd get higher productivity."

Such robots also could be used to quickly survey fields damaged by hail or other weather events, and replant them with seed varieties that will regrow more quickly, Dorhout said.

Photo: An experimental orange-picking machine uses cameras to guide a robotic arm to the fruit. Credit: Energid Technologies WATCH: Will Robots Take Our Jobs?