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The Rise of Automation in Agriculture

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​The Oxford English dictionary defines Automation as ‘the use of machines and computers to do work that was previously done by people.’ With increasing staff shortages across all sectors, it is little wonder that we are hearing about Automation more and more. Having personally recruited within Engineering and Manufacturing for nearly 10 years I have witnessed first-hand its development in a range of industries.

Agriculture not only feeds us but also represents a nearly $8 trillion industry globally according to the World Bank. With recent headlines such as ‘Labour crisis has created £60m-worth of crop losses this year, says NFU’ (Source ‘The Grocer’ 16th August 2022) the Agricultural sector needs to act and it most definitely is. Automated farm systems appear to be the future for the industry given that manual labour can be as much as 50% of a farm’s costs annually.

Types of agricultural robots / automated farming systems include:

1. Guidance / Harvesting systems: These systems are the most common automated agricultural system in the UK. The systems can be installed on other machines to automate regular machines. They are popular because they don’t require a new machine. The AI computers can automatically run any electronic machinery if programmed correctly – and if it doesn’t need manual action to operate the equipment.

2. Fruit picking robots: Mainly used for strawberries and ground vegetables, automated fruit machines can identify ripe fruit and weight it. They can also identify which fruits will be ripe next week so famers can plan ahead. There are other variations which will pick apples.

3. Watering machines: Automated watering machines can identify which part of a field needs additional water and can change location to adapt to changing conditions. Normally, this equipment is part of an upgraded mobile irrigation system. They also save water by only watering when necessary.

4. Soil-sampling: Many farmers use soil analysis to help ensure crops remain healthy. Sampling machines take a wide selection of soil for analysis and provide accurate results. This saves time and effort for farmers as they don’t have to take samples by hand.

5. Sorting machines: Once produce is harvested it needs to be cleaned and packaged ready to leave the farm. Automated sorting machines make this task easier and can pack produce based on weight or size.

6. Weeding machines: Weeding by hand is a laborious task. Automated weeding machines look very like indoor roaming vacuums, but instead of ‘hoovering’ up dirt, they can identify and remove small weeds so fields remain weed free.

7. Scan and spray weeders: For slightly tougher weeds, or for larger areas, automated machines with cameras identify weeds and deliver a concentrated dose of weedkiller directly onto the weed. These machines are very popular because they also benefit the environment by only apply pesticide directly to the weed itself, rather than spraying large areas of land.

8. Seeding machines: Automated seeding machines not only save time but also ensure seeds are dispersed evenly and at the right depth.

9. Analysis drones: Automated drones fly over farms and can identify irregularities in crops and can determine when herds need to be relocated to other pastures.

10. Milking machines: Automated milking machines are becoming more popular. Once the cows are attached to the machine, the machine can determine the health of the cow and can make recommendations based on the quality and quantity of the milk.

In short, Automation clearly is the future for Agriculture and the UK is a key innovator for the sector. I’m excited to see what the future brings!

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