Automation and the Future of American Agriculture

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Automation and the Future of American Agriculture

Last year, the efforts of the United States to keep migrant workers out of the country succeeded in part. At least, they succeeded well enough to produce labor shortages in California, where more than half of the nation’s fruit, nuts, and vegetables are grown. That caused growers to leave crops rotting in the fields.

Unsure of where their employees are going to come from next season — let alone in the long run — farmers are clamoring for a solution to the problem. One obvious answer is to create machines that can do the jobs that people are doing now.

Can it be done?

The answer is a qualified “yes.” Fruit and vegetables are delicate. The migrant workers who now harvest these crops rely on finely honed skills of hand and eye coordination to do what appears to be a very simple job, but is actually a very complex set of judgments and movements.

According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, a quarter of a million workers are needed year-round to maintain the state’s farms, while half a million are required during the summer harvest seasons. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that half of those workers are undocumented.

As explained in recent issues of the online science magazine,1 there are already automated devices that can be used to pick low-grade wine grapes, nuts, and tomatoes that are to be used for canning. The bulk of the crops are still too fragile for machines. But, this is about to change dramatically.
The Illinois Council on Food and Agriculture Research (C-FAR) is handing out grants to develop automated farm equipment, and the Robotics and Automation Society of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has put out a call to industry researchers and farmers to come together to make robotics a reality.

They point out that the blending of two technologies — intelligent sensing and mechanical actuation — is already in use. Current applications include vision-guided tractors, product grading systems, planters, harvesters, and applicators for fertilizer and pest control. Other types of automated machinery can divide plant materials for micro-propagation, or peel fruit for canning.

All the ingredients for effective agricultural robots are already in existence according to a report in The Furrow,2 a magazine published by the John Deere Company and read by some 1.5 million farmers in 115 countries.

Some of the elements that will go into farm robots are:

  • Transducers to measure actuator positions
  • Vision guidance and grading
  • Time-series analysis of vibration in cutting mechanisms
  • Flow rate monitors
  • GPS systems for precision movement of machinery

At the University of Illinois, for example, researchers have teamed up with engineers from the Japanese National Agricultural Research Center to build a weed-killing robot...

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