AGRICULTURE TECHNOLOGIES 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
Study: Robots may be more helpful, but they won’t replace humans
Decreasing technology costs coupled with increasing labor costs will make agricultural robots more attractive in the future — but they’ll never replace all human labor, according to a recent study.
Cost remains the primary factor.
The biggest drivers of robot adoption today are limited labor availability, regulatory pressures and the increased accuracy and precision of robotic solutions, said a study released in April by Lux Research, a Boston research and advisory firm dedicated to emerging technologies.
Robot “developers will need to work to aggressively decrease their technology costs while increasing the amount of human labor each device can replace in order to drive adoption of these solutions,” the report said. “Robotic solutions that are more general, and can replace more significant proportions of human tasks, will be best positioned for success.”
The study looked at several examples of emerging robot technologies, including Autosteer and Edrive in U.S. corn farming, automated lettuce thinners in Europe and robotic strawberry pickers in Japan.
In U.S. corn farming, the gap between human labor and the cost of Autosteer- or Edrive-assisted labor is relatively small, the study said. Edrive, a progression in automation from Autosteer, enables partial or full automation of tractors, including remote operation capabilities, usually at a cost of more than $100,000.
The gap between all human labor cost and Autosteer- or Edrive-assisted labor in U.S. corn farming is relatively small. All three options hover between about $35 and $39 per acre, the study said.
But all three will also reach the same cost — about $39 per acre around 2019.
Autosteer is already effective for many corn growers with large operations and labor quantity shortages, and about 10 percent have already adopted the technology. Advances in technology and regulatory shifts could improve the case for both technologies, the study said.
In Europe, labor costs, at less than $200 per acre on lettuce farms, remain well below the nearly $500-per-acre price of lettuce thinning technology, the report said, though the two would reach a break-even point around 2028. Beyond that, automated lettuce thinning would be less expensive than human labor.
In Japan, a strawberry harvesting robot in their analysis already equals the cost of human labor at about $4,500 per acre, and human labor is only projected to get more expensive over time.
“Labor wages will continue to rise, particularly for high-volume row crops, as workers will be further incentivized to focus on low-volume, high-value crops that can afford to offer premium wages,” the report said. “However, the rise of labor wages will not offset the high capital equipment cost of fully autonomous systems; therefore, to gain incremental market traction, developers must focus on partially autonomous solutions that seek to supplement workers in the near term and enable overall farm efficiency.”