Agbots Are Working Wonders in Australia, but Should UK Farmers Follow Suit?

We treat automation in any industry with a healthy degree of suspicion. After all, many  of our jobs are at risk in the not too distant future. A recent study from the McKinsey Global Institute predicted that 800 million jobs could be lost to robots by 2030 with 5% of current jobs standing to be totally automated. Another study conducted by YouGov for the Royal Society of Arts predicted that 4 million private sector jobs could be lost in the UK in the next decade. This makes for worrying reading, especially for those of us whose jobs involve repetitive tasks such as data entry, which are the most likely to be automated. But what a sector that is, in fact, struggling to find enough workers to keep going?

In Australia, agbots (agricultural robots) are having a huge impact on the agricultural  industries. They allow mundane tasks to be performed with speed and precision, whilst also limiting environmental impact. But are they right for the UK? In contrast to Australia, the UK has seen a recent increase in young people going into farming, and it would be a shame to automate the jobs of people who are keen to work. On the other hand, the use of new technology could be just what we need to make farming more appealing to young people. So, should farming as an industry embrace automation, or should it resist?

Australia: a glimpse of the future?

Automation in agricultural sectors is not a new phenomena. The agricultural revolution, which introduced mechanisation through inventions like the tractors,  had a devastating effect on agricultural employment through the early and mid twentieth century.  In his 2015 paper, MIT economist David Autor points out that agricultural employment in the USA fell from 41% of the total population in 1900 to just 2% in 2000. How this latest wave of innovation will impact on employment is yet to be seen.

In more recent years, nowhere has agriculture suffered such huge job losses as in Australia. Between 1981 and 2011, the country lost 40% of its farmers. But automation is only part of the story. Contrary to the UK’s own position, Australia is also grappling with the fact that many young people are unwilling to take over their parents’ farms, preferring instead to move to the city in search of work. As a result, according to a recent study, the average Australian farmer is now 56 years old, 17 years older than the average Australian worker across all industries.  This is clearly not sustainable.

Australia is a country with a diminishing number of farmers and vast amounts of farmland. As such, Australian farmers are perfectly poised to take advantage of new automation technologies. That is exactly what they’ve done, and the results have been impressive to say the least. Thanks in part to the adoption of agbots, Australia is now one of only 11 countries in the world who are net exporters of food.

Meet the Agbots

One of the most popular agbots is the AgBot II, a weed-killing robot designed by the Queensland University of Technology. Weeds are a huge problem for Australian farmers, costing the industry around $1.3 billion a year. The problem is compounded by the fact that many weeds are becoming immune to herbicides after years of overuse. The AgBot II works by identifying individual weed species and then choosing the most appropriate method to remove them. Those that are vulnerable to chemicals are sprayed, those that are immune are removed mechanically.

Dr Tim Perez, the leader of the QUT’s agbot programme explains this approach:

“The cutting edge robotic vision gives Agbot II the ability to spot-spray selected weed species and use mechanical tools to remove other weeds species that are herbicide resistant.”

This video shows the AgBot II in action.

As well as destroying weeds, robots can also be used to cultivate crops. SwarmFarm is another Queensland based company who are using swarm robotics to fertilise, monitor and harvest crops. Swarm robotics is an approach to automation that uses many simple coordinated robots at once, rather than a few highly advanced robots. The company describe their products as “small, simple machines that do tasks very well.” This video demonstrates the ability of a swarm of agbots to cover a large area of land in a short space of time.

Are agbots right for the UK?

Australia has shown the benefits of agbots, but should the UK follow suit? We certainly have the capability. Last year, a team from Harper Adams University in Shropshire achieved a world-first with the Hands Free Hectare project. The team managed to sew and harvest an entire field of barley using nothing but robots. Kit Franklin, the project’s leader, believes that small precision robots are the way forward:

“Automation is the future of farming, but we’re at a stage where farm machinery has got to unsustainable sizes.”

If we must automate farming then small sophisticated robots are definitely the best option. The environmental benefits of targeting specific weeds rather than spraying herbicides indiscriminately are huge. The same goes for pesticides and fertilisers: agbots can now identify and target specific pests and fertilise specific plants, reducing the problem of chemical runoff.

However, in the case of the UK, our timing might be off. Whereas Australia is struggling to find enough farmers to work its land, UK farming is going through something of a renaissance. Agriculture was the fastest growing subject in UK universities in 2016, with a 4.6% increase in student numbers. 96% of graduates from Harper Adams University in 2014 had found work within 6 months. In an increasingly uncertain labour market where a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment, it’s easy to see why young people are flocking to agriculture.  

Here lies the dilemma: we don’t want to  increase automation to the extent that these new farmers can’t find work. However, it could also be that new technology is part of the reason that farming is appealing to young people again. Salah Sukkarieh, professor of robotics and intelligent systems at the University of Sydney explains:

“The technology could encourage the next generation to get into farming, operating it more like a business as opposed to ‘farming’.”

Agbots offer huge potential benefits but only in certain contexts. Not all countries are alike and what can help one country’s economy can devastate another’s. Automation is great in Australia where there are vast areas of farmland divided amongst a dwindling number of ageing farmers. Japan is another country where the automation of farming can be seen as a necessity as the population is both increasing and ageing, meaning that a shortage of both workers and food is on the horizon.  

In other countries such as India, where some estimates show that over half the country’s workforce is engaged in the agricultural sector, automation would mean unemployment for millions, throwing a huge spanner in the works of the country’s meteoric economic growth. David Zilberman, a professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of California sums up the problem:

“Technically, complete automation is feasible everywhere, but economically and socially it only makes sense in certain situations.”

In the UK too, we should be careful about over reliance on agbots. Recent news of young people returning to farming is encouraging and we should try to ensure that there are enough jobs for these new young farmers. However, modernising the industry is also a surefire way to get more young people excited about farming. The key is moderation: we should use agbots, but we should use them sparingly.

Do you have a game-changing idea?

Increasing agricultural productivity to cater for a growing population will be one of the key challenges facing the UK in years to come. If your company is working to improve efficiency in farming you should consider applying for an Innovate UK grant. The organisation is currently running its Health and Life Sciences sector competition which offers a share of up to £19 million for companies working in this sector.  Eligible projects must show ‘significant innovation’ in one of the priority areas. Increasing agricultural productivity is one of these areas.

Because the grants are awarded competitively, your project will need to stand out from the crowd. That’s where we can help. We have experts on hand who can guide you through the process and make sure you have the best possible chance of success.

Get in touch today and let’s get started.

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