August 03, 2013
Robots To Slash Farm Labor Use

Robots are going to transform farming. Will robots make human farm workers obsolete in a decade? In Salinas Valley California the Mountain View start-up Blue River Technologies is testing their Lettuce Bot which can replace 20 farm manual laborers.

The Blue River Tech Lettuce Bot dispenses fertilizer and removes excess lettuce sprouts. The developers expect to support weed removal in a future rev.

Automation of vegetable farming will cut costs of producing the most beneficial kinds of foods. Automated weed removal will reduce pesticide exposure and raise yields.

Solar-powered robotic weed detector as a step toward "full scale robotic automation".

Harvey the robotic plant mover.

Automation of greenhouses and of planting could open the door to more growing cycles per season. In late winter and early spring plants could be sprouted and grown at high density in greenhouses and then, once the risk of frost has past, robots will move the sprouts to fields and plant them. This could cut weeks out of the time a field grows a crop. That saved time will be available to plant and harvest another crop later in the season.

Automation will also speed both the planting and the harvesting. Robots can run 24 hours per day and operate faster than humans. Plus, their costs will fall to the point where they can be deployed in large numbers to plant or harvest a field in a very short period of time. That means earlier average planting and shorter harvests. This means even more time to start an additional growing cycle in a season.

Robots are going to continue to cut the demand for less skilled workers. Highly repetitive manual labor can be automated by better algorithms for computer vision, machine learning systems, better sensors, and faster and cheaper microprocessors.

Rather than start out indoors and then shift outdoors some companies are growing vegetables near cities using pure indoor farming in vertical stacks. FarmedHere LLC goes vertical with indoor farming of organic local produce.

Indoors manual labor very amenable to automation. Imagine industrial parks full of robots growing deep stacks of greens. I think this is a matter of when, not if.

One company in the indoor vertical farming industry claims advantages such as less water usage, no pesticides, no agricultural run-off, year-round growing, and invulnerability to weather.

An even more radical vision of indoor farming:

The energy costs of indoor farming are probably too high for grains. But for expensive and short shelf life vegetables the advantages of indoor farming are much greater.

I am expecting continued decline in the demand for manual laborers as machine vision, robotic arms, and machine learning systems become more refined, reliable, accurate, and cheaper.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 August 03 02:05 PM 

shiva1008 said at August 4, 2013 11:34 AM:

> Automation of vegetable farming will cut costs of producing the most beneficial kinds of foods. Automated weed removal will reduce pesticide exposure and raise yields.

Robot-farmed organic produce would be an improvement over conventionally farmed produce with pesticides. As of right now though, it's hard to tell whether the production gains that come from robot-farmed produce would be used to increase the nutrient density. It might just happen on its own though due to sheer economic forces (cheaper to use robots than pesticides).

Say what you want about SWPLs, but at least they have helped to create a robust demand for nutritionally dense foods in the US, where there was practically none 20 years ago. It's important that we retain as much rich soil as we can and not deplete its mineral content through industrial farming methods.

Rotten Fruit said at August 4, 2013 11:36 AM:

Will wide adoption of agricultural robots have an impact on US immigration reality?

Indoor farming could be facilitated by large thin membrane dome manufacture. Self healing transparent thin film membranes stretched like soap bubbles across a cheap, lightweight, but very strong framework. Each dome might cover hundreds of acres. Robot repair spiders would roam the frame looking for breaches. The biggest problem would be anchoring the entire structure to keep it from blowing away.

Randall Parker said at August 4, 2013 7:14 PM:


Top soil loss is a big problem. What we need to solve that: long lived perennial grains. Then the soil would not be plowed every year. The grain fields would be like orchards.

I would like to understand the economics of indoor produce.
- Does it only work for (higher priced) organic produce?
- What percentage of total cost is the electric bill?
- Could electric costs be lowered by light bulbs that emit in the much narrower light frequency spectrum where chlorophyll absorbs?
- Do they run the lights 24 hours a day for faster plant growth?
- How expensive is labor?
- How expensive are supplies, water, heat, the building?

Answers to those questions would give us a better idea of how much robotics could do to make indoor produce more competitive. If labor is a larger fraction of the cost of indoor farms then robots will cut costs of indoor farming by more than it cuts the cost of outdoor farming.

Brett Bellmore said at August 5, 2013 1:46 PM:

"Will wide adoption of agricultural robots have an impact on US immigration reality?"

Likely not, unless agricultural robots get the vote, and reliably vote Democratic. US immigration reality is all about forced demographic change, not agriculture.

Red said at August 7, 2013 4:36 AM:

The indoor farming is a revolutionary change. 2 or 3 small nuke plants would produce enough power to feed a city the size New York. First time in history where cities no longer need the country side to supply them with basic food stuffs. Big city air will also double the speed at that food can grow at.

Ronald Brak said at August 14, 2013 9:04 PM:

In Europe there are a lot of greenhouses. In the Netherlands a quarter of a percent of the country is greenhouses and the industry employs about 150,000 people. Obviously robots will have a great impact in this area. Greenhouses don't normally use artificial lighting to boost plant growth, but the development of LED lights and the increasing availability of low cost wind electricity late at night has decreased the cost of lighting, so there is potential to increase production through its use. This would require massive increases in food prices to be worthwhile, but if environmental disasters cause food price increases it could be done. (This is one reason why people in rich countries are unlikely to ever starve to death.) At 10 cents a kilowatt-hour it might cost a dollar to replicate sunshine over one square meter for 24 hours.

Ronald Brak said at August 15, 2013 1:30 AM:

If the Netherlands grew sugar cane in their greenhouses they might be able to produce enough food kilojoules to feed maybe 14% of their population. If they were able to double yields through 24 hour continuous lighting they might be able to feed 28% of the population. Experiments with hydroponics systems for space travel suggest that 10 cubic meters might be enough to produce sufficent food for one person, so with that sort of intensive farming the area currently contained within the Netherland's existing greenhouses could potentially feed the entire nation. This is not something that seems likely to happen but it's still interesting to consider.

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