EIT Stock ImageOver 30 years ago, I attended an impressive demonstration of a company that had developed a nifty image processing system and fruit selector to sort good from bad fruit. A great idea but hugely expensive, only operational for a part of the season (fruit picking) and prone to breakdowns and many errors.


Dear Colleagues

Over 30 years ago, I attended an impressive demonstration of a company that had developed a nifty image processing system and fruit selector to sort good from bad fruit. A great idea but hugely expensive, only operational for a part of the season (fruit picking) and prone to breakdowns and many errors. Sadly, it was eventually dumped and the investors retreated licking their wounds (no doubt swearing to avoid any bright technology type ideas in future). However, we are now moving into the right time for the successful launch of many workable robot solutions for processing food. The hype cycle is slowly (?) moving more into the mature area of producing useful economically viable outcomes.

Farming is Extraordinarily Tough
Despite strong population growth with supposedly lots of hungry mouths – nine billion people in 2050 -  farming is tough. Constant droughts, floods, fires, hail and simply the costs of trying to plant seeds, maintain good growth of one’s crops and then to harvest crops.

In sadly looking at her fields of maize which had been destroyed overnight by a hail storm, a farmer remarked that you need to have at least seven years resources (capital and human persistence) in farming to be able to stay viable through all the bad years. Twenty years ago, I was helping a mushroom farmer with automating their reticulation and monitoring systems, and a virus wiped out his production for over a year. A year of lost revenue almost bankrupted him but to his credit – he hung on and it is now a thriving highly automated firm.

 In many regions (perhaps not Africa or Asia) such as Europe, North America and Australia, there is no low cost labour as the minimum wage in a country often make it uneconomic to employ people full time (besides the ubiquitous backpackers).

The automation of agriculture is often posited as the solution to these problems but equipment is still hugely expensive, unreliable, error prone and difficult to justify for only a  month a year of harvesting.

The other challenge is that if an automation project goes wrong – you don’t mess up one day’s production but an entire season (which is generally a year). So the costs of failure can be huge and farmers often shy away for these reasons.

Success Stories are Around
The greatest success story surely lies in dairy farming with automated milking machines (robots?) rapidly becoming the standard especially for new facilities. Cows get milked five or six times per day with their cows’ underbellies and teats being cleaned and the milk production being closely monitored. The level of automation is a bit unnerving for a traditional farmer who is horrified by ‘measured march of the robots’.

Crop Harvesting is Rapidly Growing
Crop harvesting robots are also a rapidly growing (albeit expensive) industry. Robot arms are guided by image sensors that map the tree with its fruit, identify the location, size and colour of the fruit. A huge 10,000 apples per hour is a claimed production rate from one vendor and it can be adapted to oranges, lemons and peaches.

Other variations on the theme are grape mechanical harvesters with operational costs of up to half the cost of a traditional hand picker.

Drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and self-driving vehicles (tractors) have certainly made a huge impact as well.

The challenge as alluded to earlier with most automated or robotic solutions is to make them versatile or multipurpose rather than one-off aiming at only one crop and one season but in handling multiple crops from the one farm.

Where can you add value?
There is no doubt that there are huge opportunities in automating aspects of agriculture. As engineering professionals we have developed skills in many other areas of industry. Can you thus apply any of these technologies that you are familiar with to farming in a cost effective way?

In developing automated solutions for agriculture, Walt Whitman’s suggestion is good: Keep your face always toward the sunshine - and shadows will fall behind you.

Thanks to an interesting article (Dec13, 2016) from the Institute of Engineering Technology.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

Mackay’s Musings – 13th Dec’16 #630
780, 293 readers – www.idc-online.com/blogs/stevemackay