May 17, 2019
It wasn’t so long ago that a mention of the term “farming robot” might have conjured up images of C3P0 and his brethren maneuvering back and forth at Uncle Owen’s moisture farm in the original Star Wars movie. Today, though, the science fiction is fact as the first fully autonomous farm equipment becomes commercially available.
“Tractors will drive with no farmer in the cab, and specialized equipment will be able to spray, plant, plow and weed cropland,” Bloomberg News reported. “And it’s all happening well before many analysts had predicted, thanks to small startups in Canada and Australia.”
The two biggest names in agricultural equipment—Deere & Co. and CNH Industrial NV, owner of the venerable Case brand—haven’t said when they’ll follow the lead of Saskatchewan’s Dot Technology Corp. or Australia’s SwarmFarm Robotics. Both startup companies say their machines are smaller and smarter than the gigantic machinery they aim to replace, Bloomberg reported.
In Australia’s Queensland state, farm manager Sam Bradford at Arcturus Downs was an early adopter as part of a pilot program for SwarmFarm in 2018. He used four robots, each about the size of a truck, to kill weeds.
In former years, Bradford had used a 120-foot wide, 16-ton spraying machine that “looks like a massive praying mantis,” he told Bloomberg. It would blanket the field in chemicals, he said.
Yet SwarmFarm’s robots were more precise. Specifically, they distinguished the dull brown color of the farm’s paddock from green foliage, and targeted chemicals directly at the weeds.
It’s a task the farm caries out two to three times a year over 20,000 acres. With the robots, Bradford said he can save 80% of his chemical costs.
Such cost savings are seen as essential as a multi-year rout for prices depresses farm incomes and tightens margins, Bloomberg reported. Producers are eager to find any edge they can at a time when the U.S.-China trade war is disrupting the usual flow of agriculture exports.
Farmers need to achieve the next level of profitability and efficiency in farming, and “we’ve lost sight of that with engineering that doesn’t match the agronomy,” said SwarmFarm CEO Andrew Bate. “Robots flip that on its head. What’s driving adoption in agriculture is better farming systems and better ways to grow crops.”
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