Steve Cubbage: Rosie the Robot's Arrival on the Farm

November 6, 2017 03:29 PM
Steve Cubbage

As a kid, one of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was “The Jetsons.” One of the more endearing characters on the show was George’s futuristic maid, Rosie the Robot.

Fast forward to today, and Rosie is real—she can be found zooming through houses across the U.S. The Roomba vacuum is one of the most familiar products associated with robots. Just search YouTube for “house cats riding Roombas” and you’ll realize these devices are as accepted in our homes as Rosie was with the Jetson family.

Lately, mainstream media has been infatuated with driverless cars and Amazon drones. Domino’s now has unmanned pizza delivery vehicles in Europe. A Texas lawn care company named Robin uses 50 robotic lawn mowers and plans to roll out 50 to 100 more every month. That got me thinking about how robots will shape agriculture’s future and how close that day really is.

A year ago, there was some hoopla with the debut of Case IH and New Holland’s autonomous tractors. While a space-age, cabless, driverless tractor is good for racking up hits on YouTube, it probably isn’t the first or even second big thing that will represent agriculture’s robotic revolution.

In some ways, this revolution has already started. It has crept onto many farms via the smartphone. Companies such as AgSense have apps that allow you to control and monitor center-pivot irrigation systems without constant on-site babysitting. OPIsystems can monitor and manage grain using sensors inside your bins that are connected to an online account. If you have a hot spot in a bin, you can turn on the fan with the app from anywhere in the world.

Why is technology necessary? It is no secret the number of farms is consolidating rapidly. In turn, the average farm size is mushrooming, which is putting an incredible strain on the human workforce needed to adequately tend to each acre in a personalized fashion like your great-grandfather did.

The standing world-record corn yield is 503 bu. per acre. It is not humanly possible to get anywhere close to that number covering thousands of acres without sensors and robotic gardeners that turn farms into open-air, high-tech greenhouses.

Where is technology headed? Farm automation is going to be a big deal. The industry calls this continued addition of connected devices the “Internet of Things,” or IoT for short. According to a study from OnFarm, using “connected devices” increased yields on the average farm by 1.75%. Energy costs dropped $7 to $13 per acre. Water use for irrigation fell by 8%. Add it all up, and you’re talking real money! With those figures, it’s easy to acknowledge the fact IoT device installations are projected to grow from 30 million in 2015 to well more than 75 million by 2020.

The next generation of devices will be smarter and do even more.

Here’s just one example. Blue River Technology based in Sunnyvale, Calif., and recently purchased by Deere & Company, is building the world’s first “see and spray” sprayer. Using sensors, cameras and computers with facial recognition technology, this sprayer seeks and destroys weeds among growing plants. Such robotic technology could reduce chemical use by as much as 90%. Plus, it could be a real win in the war against herbicide-resistant weeds.

Just imagine a fleet of Roomba-like smart sprayers patrolling up and down your corn and soybean rows day and night. The sprayers can do everything from spray weeds to scout for insects and diseases to take on-the-go nitrogen readings. Get ready. The rise of robots on the farm is about to take root—for real.

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