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Farming, it’s a robot job!

For the first time robots have been used to plant and harvest. Credit: Harper Adams University

For most of our human history agriculture has provided the most of employment.

Depending on the Country over half, and up to two third, of the population was farming. This started to change with the development of commerce in the XVII century and changed even more with the Industrial Revolution that attracted more and more people to factories and it further changed with the “output” of the industrial revolution that mechanised the work in the fields requiring less and less human labour (see graph).

Decrease in labour force working in agriculture since 1300. Credit: Max Roser

Robotisation in the last part of the XX century has further decreased the need of manpower in farming that has reached an all time low of 1-2% overall employment.

Now Harper Adams University has demonstrated all robotised farming, from planting, weeding, tending and harvesting with zero human labour (if we disregard the robots maintenance, quite a different kind of job, requiring quite different skills). This is the result of the project Hands Free Hectare.

The demonstration was carried out in England, cultivating one acre and a half of barley without any farmer intervention.

The robo-farmers included autonomous vehicles and drones to identify the best lay out of ditches and depth of channels to irrigate the barley (precision agriculture) and then to dig them. They also took care of applying optimised quantity of fungicides, herbicides and fertilisers at the right time and where they were needed.

Interesting to note that the orchestration of the robots, to create an autonomous system was designed from scratch but several of the machines used where up to 25 years old (tractors and the likes) upgraded in the control part to be connected to the orchestrator.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.