Robots in agriculture


in Economics, Science, The environment

The Economist recently printed an article describing experimentation in the use of robots for agriculture, which included some interesting claims about potential environmental benefits:

The company will offer its robots as a service. Tom will live in a kennel on the farm, where it will download data for the farmer and recharge. Dick and Harry will be delivered to farms as and when they are needed, much as farmers already bring in contractors. This business model, reckons Mr Scott-Robinson, will demonstrate to farmers that the cost of using agribots will be competitive with other weed-control measures and provide additional benefits, such as being chemical-free.

When chemicals are required on crops, both tractor-towed systems and agribots could apply microdoses to the individual plants that require them, rather than spraying an entire field. Some trials have suggested microdosing could reduce the amount of herbicide being sprayed on a crop by 90% or more. basf, a German chemical giant, is working with Bosch, a German engineering firm, on a spraying system that identifies plants and then applies herbicides in just such a targeted way.

That’s certainly attractive compared to indiscriminate spraying of whole fields, though there will surely be downsides to such automation as well. Few people work in agriculture in rich societies already, but such technologies could affect the relationship between capital and labour nonetheless, and much more so in places where farming is less automated already.

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