Withering on the vine: COVID and agriculture robotics

Farmers around the world are facing another summer upended by the coronavirus pandemic, reigniting calls for large-scale automation of the agriculture industry. 

One such initiative: the Global Harvest Automation Initiative, announced earlier this year by farming association Western Growers. In short, the initiative aims to create a standardized technology stack and help automation startups get their robots into the field faster.

“It’s time to declare our moonshot: to automate 50% of this industry.”

  • Dave Puglia, CEO, Western Growers

What’s at stake: Some forecasts see the global agricultural robots market, valued at about $5 billion in 2020, quadrupling over the next five years.

Why robots, part one: The fact that the agriculture industry struggles with labor shortages isn’t news. Here’s just one example: A 2019 study found that more than half of 1,071 California farmers surveyed struggled to find enough workers between 2013-18. In the final two years of the survey, the share rose to 70% or more.

The pandemic has exacerbated long-running issues in different industries and accelerated the need to transform. Agriculture is no exception, and the impact of labor shortages is being felt from Prince Edward Island, Canada, to Tasmania, Australia

If we had to say one nice thing about 2020, it’s that it could have been even worse. For many major agriculture producing countries, last summer coincided with the end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling them to relax restrictions on international travel and admit seasonal workers. 

This year, the situation is much more chaotic. Some countries, such as France, are coming down from the third wave. Others, such as India, are still dealing with major outbreaks. The race to vaccinate the world and the threat of new virus variants add to the uncertainty.

Why robots, part two: For many farmers in the US, food prices failed to keep up with labor costs in the previous decade. Many see automation as a way to cut costs and grow margins.

Beyond the bot: Robotics hype tends to focus on the hardware, and agriculture has its fair share of characters, from Thorvald, who picks strawberries, to the duo of Tom and Dick, who scan crops and zap weeds. 

The Global Harvest Automation Initiative and similar projects highlight the fact that the agriculture industry — or any industry, for that matter — needs a strong data foundation to prevent the robots from becoming expensive remote-controlled toys.

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