Robots in agribusiness

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The agricultural sector is recognized as one of the areas that still require the use of a large amount of labor in its production stages-whether in planting, harvesting or in the cultural treatments of the crop. This presents some challenges related to the lack of labor for agro activities — which is mainly due to factors such as the urbanization of cities, migration of young people to other activities, labor competition.

However, this scenario begins to change with digital transformation in the field. The mechanization of several processes in the crop brings great relief to the problems of lack of manpower in the field, with automated equipment carrying out operations and activities that previously needed many people. In addition, this mechanization has the potential to increase production, reduce losses and open up new possibilities for agribusiness.

Several activities that have been mechanized over time, such as the mechanical harvesting of sugarcane and coffee, use more efficient machines, precision farming techniques in planting, fertilizing and spraying have greatly improved the efficiency of the processes in the field and have been adopted and expanded for some time. These technologies and activities already available, for sure, have brought an increase in both productivity, quality and better working conditions in the field. However, agricultural activities can still be more automated, having a space for the growth and development of the use of robots in the field.

Aobotics — technology for the development of autonomous robots, equipment capable of performing tasks and processes autonomously and independently-also tends to establish itself in the field, ceasing to be only a vision of the future. The greater advances we have in terms of data connectivity in the field, more and more resources such as the use of robots in the field tend to consolidate and establish themselves in agricultural activities.

Robots in the field

There are already some types of robots in the field (mainly, in protected environments, that is, in greenhouses, vertical farms, where one has greater control of the environment), aiding in a variety of tasks related to the day-to-day agricultural tasks, whether in farming or in animal breeding.

With increasing connectivity (such as 5G and, while these are not available, solutions such as LPWA networks) and the advancement of Technology, scenes of almost fully automated farms no longer seem such a distant thing. Some examples of using robots in the field are:

Herbicides control

There are already some projects of robots capable of autonomously navigating the field and making sprays directed at invasive plants. With this precision, crop exposure to herbicides can be avoided and there is savings in the number of herbicides to be applied. Another advantage is that it becomes possible to prevent the application from being made by people — thus decreasing the contact of employees with potentially toxic elements.

Fruit crops

Fruits usually need extra care in their harvest, as they are more delicate products than grains and other types of vegetables. Due to this, the use of robots in fruit growing has always been seen with greater restrictions.

However, nowadays, with more efficient sensors, technologies such as artificial intelligence, computer vision and spatial location — with which, through images, one can accurately detect which and where the fruits are(in some cases, being able to detect fruits with computer vision, which in some cases, the human eye could pass) so that the machine can search for the fruit at the exact point and without damaging it, in addition to trying to identify through coloring, for example, if the fruit has reached the point of harvest and they begin to be prepared for more and more detailed activities.

Another technique that would be interesting to be automated in fruit harvesting, would be the Brix degree measurement of the fruits. Brix is a numerical scale that measures the number of soluble solids (basically understood as sugar or sucrose) in a fruit. Speaking in an even simpler way, the Brix degree can be considered the degree of sweetness of a fruit or a liquid. It would be interesting to have robots that can detect the fruits in which the degree of maturation of them would be checked by the colors and in addition another check to be done, one could sample fruits and check the Brix degree of the fruits (there are today digital refractometers, wherefrom samples of drops of the fruits the Brix degree is obtained), where only from a certain degree of sweetness, the fruits are harvested. This would generate even more value to the product to be marketed.

Cultural tracts/harvesting of large crops

The harvest of large crops such as soybean, corn, coffee, cotton among others already have machinery in which precision and technological agriculture have more modern. Many of these machines, in order to be called robots, only need to be completely autonomous and this does not seem to be very far from happening, but currently, they usually need a pilot in driving. But note that in this case, these pilots need to have a high technological knowledge and knowledge, that is, demand skilled labor.

Planting seedlings and seeds

In-plant seedling nurseries, where the environment is more controlled, robots can be used in tasks such as moving the seedling trays at different stages of greenhouse development, generating greater efficiency in the planting process and monitoring the development of seedlings and also a reduction in the labor required to generate healthier plants.

Considering technologies for planting seedlings and seeds in the production field, robot systems with 3D vision can be used for robots to perform a planting with great accuracy, reducing the amount of seeds used and generating fewer failures in planting. Consequently, possibilities for larger and higher quality productions are opened up.

Management and control of livestock, poultry

Robots that help in the management of animals, monitoring the nutritional status and welfare of animals can be used, especially in protected environments such as chicken coops or in confined cattle breeding. Robots can even be used in the driving of animals when site targeting should be used during the day — for example, at night, they should be instructed to stay in more protected places.

An example in which the use of robots in the driving of cattle can be seen in this model seen on the Cargill page, where a robot is used in place of the driving of humans, leading the cattle to the respective stalls where each animal needs to be directed (be it feeding bays, rest bays or any other necessary driving). Since oxen are large animals, although normally docile, in large quantities they can risk accidents to humans, and a robot would be able to do the driving without great risks.

Drones

Despite being known as drones or UAVs( autonomous unmanned vehicles), drones are still robots that perform the most diverse tasks in the field, but by air and not by land. Drones have already been used in actions such as spraying defensives, avoiding human presence on the site and reducing the risks of poisoning. Another activity in which they are already using drones would be the aerial mapping/monitoring of the properties, serving as a spy and detector of abnormalities in the culture.

Drones are already used in spraying, aerial monitoring, among other activities. There are studies of the use of drones even as pollinators of plants acting such as electronic bees. Bee reduction due to disease, climate change and pesticide use have led to risks of collapse in the field’s natural pollinators. Within this scenario, pollinator drones are being developed to assist in the task of pollinating the most diverse crops (apples, potatoes, onions ) among several other crops that need pollination to produce in fact.

Challenges of field robotization

Just as there has been much controversy focused on the reduction of the workforce with the introduction of robots in the most diverse industries (automotive, especially), this debate may return to the surface in relation to labor in the field. However, unlike industry, agriculture has presented problems with the availability of labor for a variety of reasons.

In Brazil, we have also reported labor problems in the field, due to problems such as: labor competition (mainly with services in cities, where usually the service is lighter, in addition to generally paying better); logistics (because the labor is not always located near the fields). Increasing the mechanization of field tasks in addition to process automation already help enough in reducing the need for labor in the field.

In addition, as technology in the field develops, a more skilled type of workforce has been a scarce item as well. Thus, the use of robots in the field tends to be increasingly necessary, since the very difficulty in obtaining agricultural labor tends to accelerate the processes of robotization of the field tend to act precisely in the most repetitive, heavy and tedious tasks of the fieldwork, thus favoring the reduction of the need for Labor. As an example, we can cite tasks such as spraying, harvesting, analysis of climatic and soil conditions.

With the implementation of robotics on farms, the expectation is that human labor will be better employed, since, no matter how intelligent and advanced the machines are, more specialized jobs that require high-impact decisions will continue to be done by people. In addition, robots can be used in repetitive, tiring tasks or those that pose a greater risk to human health, such as the application of agricultural defensives.

There are still challenges to be overcome in relation to the use of robotics in the field, such as battery autonomy time, use in large areas, cultural factors among other factors, but Intelligent Robotics also tends to establish itself in the agro.

With the imminent arrival of 5G networks — which will allow connection speeds and amount of data at speeds up to 34x higher than 4G networks, in addition to allowing to connect “things” with great speed —, the use of autonomous robots opens the possibility of machines that can work in the most diverse stages of agricultural production, either in planting (inserting seeds/seedlings) with great precision, or in cultural treatments (spraying only the determined places, or in harvesting. There is much to be explored in robotics, especially when it is allied to other technologies such as artificial intelligence, computer vision, machine learning, sensors, drones and the Internet of things.

The most diverse technologies, be it Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Computer Vision, Internet of things, among others, come only to facilitate and accelerate the development of digital technology in the field. And robotization, associated with these technologies, produces more and more precise and practical machines to aid the processes of the field.

Conclusion

The advancement of automation of the various processes in the field, whether by robotics or other technological paths, seems to be a path without a return. The need to increase the production of quality food — combined with the fact that Brazil is one of the main suppliers of food in the world and added to digital technology, increasingly developed and incorporated into the agricultural environment — tends to make digital automation and robotics in agribusiness have an increasingly greater influence on agricultural production as well.

With the development of digital technology and its growing influence on agricultural business, it is conceivable that soon more and more robotic processes will be made available and employed in the field.

The transmission speeds and low latency provided by the recent 5G networks appear as an extra factor to have the expectation of the emergence of more agricultural robots and even autonomous machinery for the most diverse activities of Agriculture.

Technologies such as robotics itself, combined with knowledge of artificial intelligence, computer vision, machine learning, sensors, drones, Internet of things among many other factors tend to increase and accelerate the development of robots also in the agro.

That is, robotics in the field tends to grow as digital transformation in the field takes place. Good ideas, which bring greater efficiency and quality of life to the field, tend to succeed. Venturus always accompanies the most diverse technologies of innovation and the most modern in the agro, including robotics.

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