The global market for agricultural robotics is forecast to reach $6.7 billion by 2032, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.3 percent from next year. That’s according to a new report, Agricultural Robotics 2022-2032, from business intelligence company IDTechEx.

The report covers a broad range of technologies that could be used to tend or monitor crops and livestock. These include weeding and seeding robots, autonomous tractors, robotic implement carriers, platform robots, robotic harvesters, agricultural drones, and milking robots.

Key enabling technologies include RTK-GPS (real-time kinematic GPS, offering more accurate location), LiDAR, AI, hyperspectral imaging, end-effector technology (grippers and other tools fitted to robot arms), and precision spraying systems.

Worldwide, attention has been turning to robotics, automation, and AI during the pandemic to help address seasonal labour shortages, health and safety risks, and market unpredictability at a time of sustained consumer demand.

Nevertheless, $6.7 billion is a modest valuation for automating the sector that grows the world’s food: there are US tech start-ups that have received twice that amount in VC investment alone. It suggests that, while uptake is increasing, agricultural robotics is hardly looking at stellar growth.

Yet the challenges facing agriculture are real. The report says, “In recent years, agricultural labour has steadily become costlier and scarcer, particularly following the border closures and worker travel restrictions in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, further squeezing farmers’ margins and threatening food security across the world.”

In the UK, Brexit has exacerbated supply chain challenges in many industries, including farming – which has long relied on seasonal labour from the EU – and logistics/deliveries.

In August, a Guardian report quoted the National Farmers’ Union saying that anxiety was “off the scale” as fruit and vegetables are being left unpicked across the country, with meat and dairy farmers also reporting severe labour and market challenges.

At the same time, empty shelves in some supermarkets caused by breakdowns in established supply chains have worsened the situation locally. How can we get food from field to fork more efficiently?

Automation could help mitigate some of these problems worldwide, says IDTechEx. “Over the last decade, advances in robotics technology and artificial intelligence (AI) have made the use of farming robots an increasingly viable option.

“Across the world, a range of start-ups and established companies are working to develop robotic solutions for a number of agricultural tasks, including weeding, seeding, and harvesting.”

But how realistic are these innovations today? The day-to-day operation of a farm certainly involves a wide range of repetitive, time-consuming, and sometimes dangerous tasks that could be suitable for robotic automation, continues the report.

“Automation is already widespread in some of these tasks. Robotic milking, for example, is already a billion-dollar industry with a significant percentage of farms in Europe using a form of [it].

“Agricultural drones are also beginning to find widespread application in imaging and spraying, although regulations continue to limit their usage across much of the world and autonomy of tasks remains somewhat limited. Nevertheless, the market for agricultural drones is expected to show strong growth over much of the next decade.”

Among the challenges facing drones, flying singly or in swarms, are airspace safety regulations that limit their ability to operate beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), making it hard for farmers to survey large tracts of land from the air.

Once these obstacles are overcome – partly through aviation authorities’ cautious support for drone deliveries – the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (pilot operated or autonomous) to monitor crops, livestock, irrigation, and fertilisation could be a boon to farmers. BVLOS drones could work in tandem with other robots, such as autonomous harvesters, tractors, and crop pickers.

The data that could be gathered in real time – and from season to season – by drones fitted with a range of sensors could be invaluable to farmers, helping them to optimise yield and manage the land more efficiently. Sensors in the ground or mounted on land-based robots could enrich that data still further, helping farmers to build digital twins of their holdings.

Other applications are emerging for robotics in agriculture. “Field robots for tasks such as weeding and seeding are entering the early stages of commercialisation,” says the report.

However, the development of safe, efficient, reliable, and cost-effective robots for some farming applications is far from straightforward. Compared with milking robots – stationary devices that generally operate indoors – autonomous field robots present several technical challenges.

“Agricultural environments often feature unpredictable terrain, unknown obstacles, and a range of weather conditions that can impair autonomous navigation and operation, and limit reliability,” explains the report. “Additionally, agricultural regions are often in highly rural areas, where connectivity and access to repair and maintenance services can be limited.”

Despite broadband ‘notspots’, progress is being made in other areas, and advances in AI, computer vision, and positioning technologies have brought field robots closer than ever to commercialisation, says IDTechEx.

Start-ups such as Naïo Technologies, ecoRobotix, and TerraClear have begun commercialising robots for a diverse range of agricultural tasks, while established equipment providers such as John Deere, AGCO, and Kubota have developed autonomous tractor concepts.

Meanwhile, the Fendt MARS project “provides a glimpse into the future of farm robots, using a swarm of small, autonomous robots to carry out tasks usually performed by manned tractors, with the company using the results of this project to develop its Xaver line of agricultural robots,” says the report.

In other words, not all robotic solutions may need to be large-scale and expensive; other approaches may work just as well and be more affordable to hard-pressed farmers, including those who are no longer subsidised by the EU.

That said, some applications demand big, specialist hardware. “Looking further into the future, companies such as Octinion, Harvest CROO, and FFRobotics are developing robots for harvesting fresh fruit, something that currently involves costly and difficult-to-source labour, but is very difficult to replace using robots, requiring a careful balance of computer vision, accurate positioning, and soft-grip technology.”

The growth of agricultural robotics has also led to debate in the farming sector about the most viable business models, particularly robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) versus traditional equipment sales.

“In a robotics-as-a-service model, robots are hired by farms, alongside trained operators, vs. traditional machine/equipment sales. This can help de-risk the operation for farmers, avoiding the need to meet high upfront costs or develop expertise in the technology before deployment,” explains IDTechEx.

“However, it also requires a team of trained operators, which can prevent developers from operating in new geographies and limit scalability.

“There are also questions around the issue of data ownership and whether data belongs to farmers, data collectors, technology providers, or landowners. Regulations around this have not yet caught up with the pace of technology development and this is a key uncertainty over the future of the agricultural robotics industry.”

The message is clear: disruption has already happened to one of the world’s oldest and most important industries, which now faces existential threats in some quarters. What farmers can do about it today depends on the current viability of cutting-edge solutions, and their ability to afford them.

It also involves exhausted farmers – who are already up at all hours of the day, working the land with slim profit margins – developing entirely new skill sets, or outsourcing them at a premium. That’s a big ask.

Automation, robotics, AI, sensors, and drones offer promising avenues towards modernising the industry in the long term, and helping it to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively, with reduced need for seasonal labour. But will that future arrive quickly and affordably enough for farmers who are already facing labour shortages, financial problems, broken supply chains, and the fallout from Covid-19 and Brexit?