Drones: Farmers Are Looking for True Autonomy Now That the Hype is Over

As the hype fades and more growers test out drones on their own operations, what they really want from drone-focused technology is becoming clearer and raising the bar for startups in the field.

Ewan McFarlane, head of digital agronomy at Origin Enterprises in the UK, supervises 750 agronomists across western and eastern Europe and though his company has used drone services on a few occasions, it still does not own any drones.

Farmers using basic drone models, most commonly the Phantom 4 from dominant Chinese manufacturer DJI, report to McFarlane that the return of actionable information is not worth the cost of the labor to operate the machines.

To gain more relevance, either the data and analytics gleaned from drone imagery have to offer more value, or the drones need to be able to operate with less human interference.

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The State of Play for Farm Robotics

Farm Robotics startups are a captivating segment of the agrifood technology sector, partly because robots are fascinating to watch, but also because the problems they solve are pressing, not least the issue of labor.

“We can import labor, or we can import our fruits and vegetables,”  said John Oxford of the Produce Marketing Association at a congressional hearing in May of 2016. The dearth of agricultural labor is a continuing issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Political uncertainty on the US side is causing the supply of both legal and illegal migrant workers to dry up, and the falling value of Sterling against the Euro in light of Brexit has led to similar problems in the UK.

“The [workers] that are here are just not enough for what we need to harvest. This political instability has made our region suffer a lot when it comes to harvesting the food that we eat,” said grower Javier Zamura on stage at the Forbes Agtech Summit in June.

But replacing human hands with robots in ever-changing, inconsistent, outdoor environments is easier said than done. It is tempting to compare a farm to a factory with so many complicated products now manufactured completed devoid of physical human interaction, but both growers and field robotics entrepreneurs agree that integrating robots into fieldwork is much more difficult.

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More than Robotics is Needed to Solve Farm Labor Shortage

Even before President Trump got the opportunity to enact the aggressive immigration crackdown he promised in his campaign, farmers were talking about leaving crops in the fields to rot due to a lack of labor. It came up at a congressional hearing on food waste in May of 2016. In that hearing, John Oxford of the Produce Marketing Association said: “We can import labor, or we can import our fruits and vegetables.” An 2012 NRDC report estimates that 20% of produce grown in the US doesn’t leave the farm either because farmers can’t find enough labor, or because the cost of labor isn’t covered by the potential revenue of the crop.

It came up again before the House Agriculture committee again on July 12 when Wonderful Citrus vice president Paul Heller testified that the industry had lost about 140,000  foreign workers over the last five years, causing labor costs to rise as much as $8,400 per acre.

Record deportations in the Obama era along with anti-immigrant rhetoric from President Trump have “doubled” the labor shortage, said Western Growers Association President Tom Nassif told AgFunderNews. “Without immigration reform and a useful guest worker program in the US, we need to try and develop ways to rely more on our own ingenuity and tech solutions rather than on the government.”

He continued to say that what Washington DC presents as the answer to a lack of immigration reform is the H2A visa. “The H2A program has not worked; the process is lengthy and cumbersome, and the fact that it requires employers to provide housing is a great deterrent,” said Nassif.

Read the full story at www.AgFunderNews.com.