I’m pretty confident we will see a lot more robotics in agriculture within my lifetime, and I’m pretty confident that this isn’t a radical view. I’m also pretty excited about this future. Part of this is just the pure technological aspect. Part of this is the economic/ labour issue aspect. And a major part of this is the way it could lead to a shift away from chemical agriculture.

I’m not comfortable around chemical agriculture. I never have been. I remember well the smell and unease of the boom spray. At the same time, I’m always positively amazed at how effective it is. I also understand that chemical agriculture has given so much to society. Indeed, and call me a Physiocrat if you will, I would even go so far as to say it is the backbone of modern economic growth in the 20th/ 21st century. I also understand why it is attractive to our food producers, and why it is here to stay, at least for the next few decades. Chemical fertilisers are probably here to stay, full stop. But for me, it’s a s second best solution and less is more.

I once asked Tim Crews of The Land Institute if he thought robotics will help with the uptake of agroecology as a concept. He didn’t think so. He thought it would likely just further embed conventional agriculture. I see where he is coming from – the current robotics in agriculture focuses squarely on monocultures, and how to more efficiently apply current production methods. While a lot of this focus is on moving away from chemical weed control, it is not yet about moving away from chemical pest control or chemical fertiliser. And it’s not about moving to biological systems but rather mechanical ones. But I don’t think that will necessarily be the final destination with robotics. My go-to example is intercropping.

It is relatively very difficult to intercrop with today’s technology, particularly to harvest. I say: robots. Not today’s, and maybe not the next generation. But even today, the technology is there to distinguish between plants, so it’s “just” a matter of applying this to the harvest process, and the rest of the season, and at scale. “Just” because it is obviously much much easier said than done.

Anyone want to work on a robotic sugar beet harvest system with me?