In crop-lined fields across the United States, the long-promised age of autonomous technology appears to have finally arrived.
Already, a growing list of agriculture tech companies have developed self-piloting machines to, say, disperse seeds for crops, or harvest grapes, or pick apples, or distribute fertilizer. That innovation has brought with it some major investment: According to venture capital firm AgFunder’s most recent data, farm robotics ventures received a total of $491 million in investment during the first half of the 2021 business year, a 40 percent increase over the same period in 2020.
Of course, all the attention paid to those budding companies pales in comparison to the January announcement by heavy farming equipment mainstay John Deere that it would be releasing an autonomous version of its 8R tractor later this year. Given that a majority of all farm machinery sold in the U.S. is manufactured by John Deere, its entry into the world of driverless tractors all but guarantees that autonomous tech is here to stay.
“A lot of the progress is made by startups,” said University of Nebraska advanced machinery systems professor Santosh Pitla. “If you look at John Deere, they actually have products on the market.” In other words, decades of experience has helped the agriculture giant command a lion’s share of the public’s attention—even if not everyone is necessarily optimistic about the tech.
Each agriculture tech company offers its own spin on autonomy. In John Deere’s case, the new 8R uses six pairs of cameras and an AI system to navigate without a driver. The system will also conduct real-time readings on soil quality—something made possible by the 8R’s remote control capabilities.
“Autonomy is not just working on a camera that detects stuff,” said Julian Sanchez, John Deere’s director of emerging technology. “Autonomy is having the right connectivity tech stack such that you can do over-the-air updates [and] remotely show the status of the vehicle to a grower.” (That also means John Deere will own the data, an issue that hasn’t gone unnoticed by surveillance watchdogs.)
Yet, as enticing as the 8R might be for large farms, it could be too costly and impractical for smaller operations. That’s where the smaller companies come in. Take Advanced Farm, a California-based company behind the TX Robotic Strawberry Harvester, which—as the name suggests—uses a robotic gripper to pick ripe strawberries from in-soil beds. The TX harvester is 12 feet wide and clocks in at 3,000 lbs., making it more feasible for a smaller farm than John Deere’s mega-tractor (weight: around 28,000 lbs).
“We have re-designed the tractor from the ground up to be much more energy-efficient and, as a result, cost efficient,” said Advanced Farm co-founder Kyle Cobb. “While we can’t do tasks that require a heavy load, we could do a number of tasks that don’t require all the steel and horsepower from traditional tractors.”
The companies creating these robots are, not surprisingly, quick to sing their virtues. For one, automated machines are more climate-friendly than their human-driven counterparts, due in part to the fact that they’re more efficient and thus burn less fuel.
Though on this front, not everyone is in agreement. “I think it is evil incarnate,” said Harper Keeler, the urban farm program director at the University of Oregon. Keeler worries that autonomous tech will only bolster the U.S.’s so-called monoculture food systems, in which farmers are encouraged to grow only one crop species in a field at a time. It’s a major form of farming in the U.S., and critics like Keeler argue that it isn’t conducive to good soil health, decreases biodiversity, requires more water and pesticides than a polyculture system, and puts farmers at greater economic risk. Autonomous agriculture tech slashes costs and further bolsters the trend toward monoculture farming.
“In this time of climate change, that type of agriculture necessitates cutting down forests and perpetuates this myth that big farms are the only way to feed the world,” Keeler said. “Which is bunk.”
Then there’s the issue of labor. Farms have for years been hit by a growing labor shortage, sparked by high physical demands of farmwork, low wages, and heightened competition for jobs from local restaurants and warehouses. On this point, Sanchez pointed to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report that projected single-digit growth in farming’s labor force. “No one else is entering [the labor force], or if they’re entering, there’s enough exiting it,” he said. “And yet, you still have to feed more people.”
A lot more people. The United Nations projects the global population will hit 9.7 billion by 2050, a jump that would, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, require an increase to worldwide food production of 70 percent. That goal is going to be near-impossible to hit without robot workers, said Sanchez.
Yet there are sure to be growing pains, particularly in the workforce. A shift toward self-driving machines could well come at the expense of human workers (even with a labor shortage, there are still about 3 million farmworkers in the U.S., per the USDA, 73 percent of whom are migrants). “We don’t see it right now, [but] we’ll see that in the future: [robots] displacing our workers,” said Crescencio Diaz, president of Teamsters Local 890, a union that represents farmworkers in California’s farm-heavy Salinas Valley.
Cobb, the Advanced Farms co-founder, sees things differently. “We’re not replacing jobs,” he said. “We’re actually supplementing that workforce for jobs that can’t be filled right now.” He raised an interesting analog: Before he created Advanced Farm, he started a company, Greenbotics, that performed robotic solar panel cleaning for utility-scale power plants. As Cobb tells it, Greenbotics helped create an entire new class of worker: the robotic solar panel cleaning technician.
“There are hundreds of these people around the world now that didn't exist before, who have more earning potential than they had in previous roles, and who have unique skills that they were able to develop as a result of the technology,” Cobb said. “I think we're going to see similar things to ag tech, where people work alongside the equipment and become experts in utilizing the equipment.”
Diaz, the Teamsters Local 890 president, echoed that prediction, but with a tone of solemnity. “The only people who are going to retain jobs will be savvy enough to run and fix the machines,” he said. “The other people, they’re going to be displaced.”