The rise of robotics in the wake of covid19

Steve Collins

By Steve Collins


How are AI and Automation shaping agriculture post COVID19? 

Arguably one of the oldest industries in the world, agriculture has always been innovative.  Infact, agriculture as an invention was arguably one of the most important in history. The domestication of animals and planning of crops led to the development of strong communities over nomadic existences and the creation of defined borders to protect. The planning and storing of food gave people the privilege of free time leading to other discoveries and developments such as metalworking, mathematics and of course the development of the modern world.  

It is true to say that while new technologies and innovations have emerged regularly in the agricultural space (the plough, the tractor, pesticides etc), historically the market has always comparatively slow to adopt these new solutions en-masse.  Despite the large advances in robotics in recent years, the use of automated robotic systems in farming has always been few and far between.   

The Impact of COVID 

As with every industry COVID19 has left its mark and the agricultural industry is currently experiencing a revolution.  The pandemic has undoubtedly presented the agriculture sector with several challenges, but it has also presented many opportunities. While agricultural adoption of technology has been on the rise, recent world events have sped up the markets interest.  COVID19 put hitherto unforeseen pressures on growers to meet the massively increased demand from their customers. Their ability to be reactive and to scale to demand was put under intense pressure while their workforce was massively reduced. 

Although the technology has been around for a while, it was only when faced with these challenges that growers are realising, by removing the human element in farming, they can improve their yields at a reduced cost while at the same time reducing the risk that comes with being reliant on a large workforce during a pandemic.  They are now making moves to futureproof their businesses. 

Key COVID Related Challenges & the Technical Solutions 

Reduced Workforce 

As with every business during COVID the way agricultural companies managed their workforce changed dramatically.  While agriculture was seen as ‘essential’ and therefore many businesses could continue their operations many individuals within their workforce would be sheltering for their own health.  Many farms will also rely on scaling with seasonal workers often from abroad, to support their peak times.  The closing of countries borders and the limitations on travel meant scaling workforces in this way was impossible this year.  Labour shortages have always been a challenge for farmers even before the pandemic, but COVID escalated the issue. 

DroneDeploy saw a 33% increase in take-offs across US agriculture users between mid-March and April, the heart of the COVID19 lockdown.  Their drone data solution offered a fantastic solution to the workforce issue.  The drones enabled valuable work like field surveying and seeding to carry on while keeping the workers safe off-site.   

Increased Demand 

At the onset of the outbreak, there was significant increase in demand of food produce. This put huge pressure on supermarkets and food outlets in turn putting this demand onto the grower.  While growers rose to the occasion meeting the demand where possible, it also raised the issues that could be faced by the expected future food shortage crisis and considering solutions to these challenges. 

Robots have been used for harvesting for a while, however start-up AgTech businesses like IronOX are taking things a step further.  They have just completed a $20 million round of funding for their robotic farms where they produce leafy greens all year round in autonomous greenhouses.  Their model means their consumers can get fresh, local produce regardless of the season.  In a world where food demands and responsive growing is increasingly important you can see why investors are keen to support IronOX, which involves 90% less water than traditional farming while growing 30 times the amount per acre of land. 

Post COVID19 Agriculture 

The future will be riddled with challenges for the agricultural industry; a massive food and land shortage led by population growth, unpredictable weather patterns such as droughts and extreme rain led by climate change.  In light of this, there is no doubt that AI-driven automated, robotic systems will become the new normal, creating a more efficient, less wasteful and truly smarter agriculture world than the one before. 

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