Robotics and agriculture, forestry and fisheries today

As with many industries, farming has undergone several technological revolutions. The first involved the replacement of animals with machinery to do farming tasks, allowing the size of farms to increase, but also requiring that operations were low in complexity. The current revolution is digital. Digital technology applied to agriculture, forestry and fisheries brings together biology, technology, and human factors. It enables the use of information extracted from purposefully collected data to manage agricultural, forestry, and fisheries production systems to optimise yield, increase efficiency, and ensure sustainability [CSI17].

The drivers for adoption of robotics to agriculture include [TP17] the intensification of food production, nature’s resilience, high inefficiency in value chains, limited land use (and competition with other land use cases), population growth, and personal habits and beliefs regarding food including food safety, environmental conservatism and food provenance.

The application of AgTech requires the use of machinery and robotics, connectivity and integration (e.g, block chain and interoperability), sensor systems that are supported by adequate telecommunications and infrastructure. This context needs to be linked with informatics and cybernetics to manage the agricultural and environmental value chain [TP17]. Productivity growth in the agricultural sector outstrips the rest of the economy by a factor of two, suggesting that Australian farmers are quick to adopt and adapt to technological change [KPMG16].

Economic demands, over-ageing, and shortages of skilled farm labour in agricultural regions, food and fibre requirements of a growing world population, and stringent standards will continue to drive the commercial need for agricultural robots [IFRSR17]. The main types of agricultural robots deployed today are autonomous vehicles and automation of crop farming (e.g, fruit-growing, market gardening, and ornamental horticulture). Robot deployment occurs in greenhouses and on the land. The use of UAVs for inspection, metrology and aerial-based precision farming seems set to expand in areas such as soil and field analysis, surveying, seeding/planting, crop spraying, irrigation, and plant health assessment. Future UAVs may come in fleets of autonomous drones that tackle agricultural monitoring tasks collectively, or as hybrid aerial-ground drone actors that could collect data and perform a variety of other tasks [KPMG16].

The advantages of applying robotic technologies enables enhanced agriculture, forestry, and fisheries production through:

  • novel technologies, such as sensors, robotics, real-time data systems, and traceability, all integrated into the full production chain
  • better management and use of waste and water
  • protection of food sources through enhanced biosecurity
  • managing, harvesting, maintaining, and establishing forests as well as nursery production of trees
  • management of diseases, invasive weeds, and pest animals (including feral animals), which currently cost farmers more than $AU4.7 billion a year [TP17].

Environmental sustainability is high on the agenda for many consumers, so food production practices need to increase productivity while having minimal or even positive impacts on the environment [KPMG16].

The forestry sector has always been considered a physically demanding and potentially dangerous workplace where workers are exposed to heavy and fast-moving trees, logs, and machinery [NZJF16]. A recent workshop by Forest & Wood Products Australia identified that robotics has the potential to deliver social, safety and environmental benefits to forestry. Additionally, it provides the opportunity to attract a new generation of workers to the industry and helps the sector to be viewed as innovative and technologically sophisticated [FWPA18]. Automation in wood harvesting could also lead to environmental advances including reduced soil compaction, and the ability to spot koalas and other wildlife using remote image sensing [FWPA18]. Other drivers to adopt robotics in forestry include the need to accurately and precisely assess forest inventories, reduce costs, increase the speed of data acquisition, correlate ecological knowledge with remote-sensing technology to predict and quantify the fibre characteristics of trees, and new forest-renewal methods that maintain and support natural biodiversity while maximising potential forest-site productivity. Robotic technologies can be applied to determine the impacts of climate change on forest diversity, to provide new approaches to measuring environmental risk and uncertainty, and to assess the environmental costs and benefits of different land-use strategies in terms of their impact on forest diversity [FWPA18].

In the fisheries industry, fish farms must be monitored and maintained on a regular basis including fish welfare monitoring, facility inspections, control of feed rationing, and lice counting [EAA17]. Such daily tasks are carried out by service vessels with several crew on board in sometimes dangerous conditions, such as the open ocean. Drivers for the adoption of robotic technologies include the need to improve safety, reduce costs, facilitate remote mapping of aquatic habitats supporting fisheries and species diversity, the development of new stock enhancement, and management tools (e.g., technologies to support biodiversity protection and restocking strategies, and to respond to key risks to fisheries and aquaculture) [EAA17].