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“Dead or alive, you’re coming with me,” said RoboCop.
Okay, so this article isn’t about the 80s movie with the unnecessary remake that I didn’t watch, but I get the same deadly vibe the more I learn about RoboCrops. That’s not the official name, of course. Instead, they’re calling it “robot-assisted farming,” but the implication is the same for doomsday watchers.
The robots in question are driven by Artificial Intelligence. They have lasers. Yes, lasers. And they’re rapidly becoming the go-to “labor” force for farms across the globe. Why? Because they never need a lunch break, rarely call in sick, and are as precise as their AI brains allow them to be.
It reminds me of an important line from the original Terminator. “It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”
Movie references aside, the rise of AI-powered farming equipment is concerning because of where it will lead. As they demonstrate how effective the equipment is, there will eventually be the desire to take the human factor out of the equation altogether. It makes sense to those who don’t fear AI because if the machines are not only doing the work but controlling how the work is done, crop yields will be increased dramatically.
At least, they will until they aren’t and by that time it will be too late. But now is not the time to give a bad idea to the wrong people. I’ll leave the risks of such developments up to the imagination. For now, let’s just look at the news wire report and you can decide for yourself whether this is a good idea or not.
Agriculture Adapts to Labor Shortage with AI-Powered Farming Robots
Over the past 70 years, agriculture has witnessed a decline in its workforce as successive generations turned away from family farming businesses. However, the need for increased food production, projected by the United Nations to grow by 60 percent to feed the global population by 2050, has pushed the industry to explore innovative solutions. With major producers like the US struggling to find agricultural labor, farming practices must evolve to meet the growing demand.
Walt Duflock, Vice President of Innovation at Western Growers, a crop growers’ association in the western US, highlights the significant gap between the labor required in agriculture and the labor currently available. He believes that automation is the only solution to bridge this gap.
Farmers are now embracing modern AI-powered farming robots, replacing traditional machinery, to handle tasks that previously relied on human labor. One such example is the Naïo Oz Farming Assistant, a robot designed for hoeing, weeding, furrow-making, seeding, and transportation. These robotic farmhands are already in use across 48 countries, with nearly 150 units deployed.
In addition to a growing number of AgTech startups, established manufacturers like Naïo and Burro have sold hundreds of robots. Stout Industrial Technology, which introduced its Smart Cultivator in 2020, is also moving in the same direction. Their cultivator, attached to a tractor, uses computer vision and AI to precisely control mechanical blades, effectively turning over soil, eliminating weeds, and sparing crops. Stout’s approach focuses on building multipurpose farming machines that become more valuable as AI technology advances.
Dr. George Kantor, a field robotics expert from Carnegie Mellon University, supports this approach, emphasizing the need for machines that can be used across tasks and crops, rather than creating specialized machines for each application. While autonomous tractors have been in use for years, new models like the Monarch Electric Tractor are designed to operate unmanned, with a driver being optional. These battery-powered tractors incorporate 360° cameras accessible via software, allowing farm workers to manage fleets remotely.
One of the most advanced innovations in the field is the Laserweeder developed by Carbon Robotics. This robot uses high-resolution cameras and computer vision software to differentiate between weeds and crops, precisely targeting and eliminating weeds with lasers. Though priced at $1.4 million, it can eliminate 200,000 weeds per hour, making it a popular choice among growers facing labor shortages.
Agricultural technology companies are also developing solutions for tasks such as weeding and thinning out crops. While harvesting remains a more complex challenge, these technologies are expected to be refined within the next decade. Implementing these advanced farming technologies may come with higher upfront costs for farms, but they can reduce reliance on temporary workers, which often incurs additional expenses for housing and transportation under government visa schemes.
Despite initial concerns about job displacement, the adoption of robotic systems in agriculture may lead to a transformation of the workforce. Rather than replacing jobs, these technologies have the potential to create fewer but more skilled and better-paid positions. Walt Duflock anticipates that immigrant farm labor will continue to play a significant role on farms in the next decade, alongside robots that enhance workers’ capabilities and enable them to focus on valuable tasks.
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