Robots, Drones Become Future of Farming

From robotic milking parlors to agricultural drones, farms are going hi-tech.


When it’s milking time on the dairy farm, many cows are being approached by a “milkbot” equipped with lasers to scan their underbellies and sensors for monitoring the amount and quality of milk produced. And, it seems the cows can manage their own milking time, which makes the cows happy and gets the milk flowing.

While we’ve reported on automated milking parlors in the past, there will be many more farming applications for robots and drones in the future. According to a recent IDTechEx Research report, agricultural robots and drones will grow from a $3 billion market in 2016 to a $10 billion market by 2022.

The report analyzes how robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture, enabling ultra-precision farming and helping address the key global challenges.

Here are a few of the findings:

Dairy farms: Thousands of robotic milking parlors have already been installed worldwide, creating a $1.9 billion industry that is projected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2026. Mobile robots are also hitting the dairy farms, helping automate tasks such as feed pushing or manure cleaning.

Autonomous tractors: While unmanned autonomous tractors have not yet hit the large-scale market—not because of technical issues but because of regulation, high sensor costs and the lack of farmers’ trust—this will all change by 2022 and sales of unmanned or master-slave (e.g. follow me) tractors will reach $200 million by 2026.

Agricultural drones: Unmanned remote-controlled helicopters have been spraying rice fields in Japan since the early 1990s. Autonomous drones have also been providing detailed aerial maps of farms, enabling farmers to take data-driven site-specific action. As regulatory barriers lower and the precision farming ecosystems finally comes together, drone hardware will become commoditized and value will shift largely to data acquisition and analytics providers. Agriculture will be a major market for drones, reaching $485 million in 2026.

Robotic weeding implements: Vision-enabled robotic implements have been in commercial use for some years in organic farming. These implements follow the crop rows, identify the weeds, and aid with mechanical hoeing. The next generation of these advanced robotic implementations will be using data to train its algorithms using deep learning techniques.

Unmanned autonomous robotic weeders and data scouts: Vision-enabled and intelligence robots will be autonomously roaming the farms, analyzing plants and taking specific actions such as eliminating a weed.

Fresh fruit harvesting: Despite non-fresh fruit harvesting being largely mechanized, fresh fruit picking has remained mostly out of the reach of machines or robots. Progress here has been hampered by the stringent technical requirements together with the lack of CAD models and the fragmented nature of the market putting off investment. This is however beginning to change. A limited number of fresh strawberry harvesters are already being piloted while fresh apple and citrus harvesters have reached the level of late stage prototyping.

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