Are robotic systems the solution?

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by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

As pervasive labor shortages plague farms, many farmers investigate automation as a means of decreasing their need for labor; however, could this provide a long-term, sustainable and environmentally sound solution? As part of the 2021 Grow-NY Summit hosted by the Center of Excellence for Food and Agriculture at Cornell AgriTech, a panel of ag technology experts discussed aspects of robotics aiding farmers.

Kirstin Petersen, assistant professor at Cornell University, emceed. Petersen leads the Collective Embodied Intelligence Lab at Cornell. The panelists were Girish Chowdhary, Mark DeSantis and Adam Fine.

Chowdhary is the CTO at EarthSense and co-founder who is also an associate professor at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He directs the Field Robotics Engineering and Science Hub (FRESH) at UIUC and is the chief scientist on the Illinois Autonomous Farm. 

DeSantis is the CEO of Bloomfield, an artificial intelligence-driven ag tech company. He has led several AI and tech-based companies and has served as director of government relations for Texas Instruments and held policy positions as a senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the administration of George H.W. Bush.

Fine is the U.S. business development manager for Blue White Robotics US and has worked in ag startups for eight years. As a co-founder of an autonomous ag business, he has placed in both the Genius NY and Grow-NY competitions.

“Are robots going to start taking over jobs?” Petersen posed, kicking off the panel discussion.

While robot-run farms may seem dystopian to some, Chowdhary views labor in ag as a different kind of issue. “The way to look at it is the kind of jobs in ag are often very low paying and there’s a long history of exploitative jobs in agriculture,” he said. “We need to grow in a way that’s sustainable. The labor crisis is causing us to make not the best choices. We want to introduce robotics to provide labor where it’s needed so we can do the right things, like planting cover crops that are often not done because of labor shortage.”

DeSantis sees a trend among times of innovation. “Everyone fears automation whether it’s an automated factory or a cotton gin,” he said. “The nature of the work changes. The grower manages to the plant rather than the acre. It changes the nature of the work on the farm, but it doesn’t eliminate human labor. It’s not so much that the work goes away, but the nature of the work changes.”

He foresees a whole new host of jobs in agriculture. “There will be whole new job titles no one ever thought of before,” he said. “If you want to see the future of ag, look inside a high-end cannabis grower. It’s a controlled environment and there are a lot of high-tech tools available for those very expensive crops.”

He thinks the use of those tools for lower-priced crops will become ubiquitous once those tools become more affordable for growers.

Fine views the adoption process as the biggest challenge. “There sometimes is an education barrier,” he said. “Needs may change from one area to the next. Teaching it isn’t always the most effective but offering it as a solution [is].”

He added that keeping new tech affordable and with a very evident value proposition makes farmers more likely to want to adopt it. For example, demonstrating that the technology will replace jobs with automation helps farmers see that investing in the technology will help them save money immediately.

Chowdhary believes that farmers have been waiting for this type of help. “They drive eight to 10 hours to talk with us,” he said. “‘Can they weed my farm? Can I have 10 of them?’”

Keeping up with that scale in crops like corn and soybeans “is just the beginning,” he added. “I think as a start-up, they’re trying to keep up with that demand on limited budgets.”

DeSantis also believes that developing and maintaining a relationship with farmers is important to the adoption process. “It’s not just the check they write you but changes internally to make use of your products,” he said. “Farms are driven by their routines and processes. You have to minimize the changes they make. You try to make your solution fit into the stream of activity that’s already happening there.”

Some ag tech companies fulfill the promise of what their products do, but their issue is how farmers must change their farm’s routines and processes to accommodate it.

“The cost of that was farming more than the check they wrote,” DeSantis said. “Pay attention – to anyone starting a company in ag and technology. Understand the true cost of adoption. They’ll show up and tell you how hard it is to adopt your product.”

Fine said that a site inspection is part of his company’s adoption process. “We attack the easiest tasks first,” he said. “We slowly grow with the grower. It’s a very intimate approach. It’s growing it to the point where they’re comfortable.”

Chowdhardy said the farmer should remain at the center of the process. “Everything is about how can we make it easy for them to use it,” he said. “How is the product working for them?”

While purchasing new technology to automate on the farm may seem trendy and future-oriented, DeSantis said that it must make a positive difference in the farm finances.

“We want to make products that bring farming to a more sustainable set-up,” he said. “We have financial and environmental incentives. The options farmers have available have not yet worked to bring those into balance. The goal is to create options that bring those into balance. It has to be easy for the farmer to use. It’s very easy for humans to underestimate how hard it is for robots to walk down a row.”

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