Peter has an admirable ability to choose projects and deliver the goods on them. Robotics needs more like him.
Interview with Corke on this subject:
Homepage with free stuff including books and MOOC:
edit: I'm not affiliated with QUT and have no conflict of interest. I'm an academic that does related work but not in agriculture.
He outlines the reasons why they shifted away from MOOCs in the Robots Podcast episode #239.
I recently made a site too, for anybody interested in robotics/AI: http://roboticsaustralia.org
On top of that, chemical applicators are relatively simple and proven technology with few moving parts. Farm equipment isn't like your car that can go 100,000 miles without problem. Moving parts on farm equipment will break – constantly. On top of that, computer technology does not come cheap when it is low volume specialized systems, built to withstand the harsh environments of agriculture.
I have no doubt the technology is possible, but I do wonder if it is possible in a price range that would actually improve the bottom line.
Many stories. Will blog soon :)
Not only that, but what I am sure most would consider the most devastating type of chemical in recent times, neonicotinoids, are applied as a seed treatment, planted with the planter. Even if you could devise an advanced machine that continually keeps pests from eating the seed while it is buried beneath the ground, that requires trips over the field that are currently not required at all. It is tough to compete with no additional trips over the field. Energy and wear is expensive and potentially devastating to the environment, including issues like carbon emissions and topsoil depletion.
(Neonics are already banned where I farm, but it is a good illustration of how chemicals can sometimes eliminate the need for machinery altogether and how the robo-pest terminator has to be able to compete with that)
They just have to make Naturland/Bioland/Demeter style organic farming (which except for very rare cases not even allow any chemical pesticides or herbicides) cheap enough that it becomes competitive.
However the robots are not trying to replace chemicals. As you point out, that's a losing proposition. But they can definitely reduce overall man-hours, and so provide constant value as long as they operate.
I can say from personal experience (I am a farmer) that it is not. My white beans get the roundup treatment. They would never dry down in time for a successful harvest otherwise.
In the olden days before roundup they used to pull them and leave them to dry before harvest, but that brought its own issues, including requiring many more trips over the field. That is a costly endeavour, including needing multiples more greenhouse gas emitting fuel, which has its own fair share of environmental impacts.
> But they can definitely reduce overall man-hours, and so provide constant value as long as they operate.
Even a simple autosteer system, which does not even replace the operator, can cost more than many farmers would spend on labour in their lifetime. Low-volume specialized farming technology is insanely expensive.
What I believe is primarily pushing the technology is difficulty in finding labour, especially skilled labour. Farmers are seeking more automation to simplify the tasks enough that you can throw any random person on the machine and get a quality result out of their work.
Operator-less equipment is inevitable, but there is no way the manufactures are going to let the farmer capture any potential gains. It is going to be priced to meet the costs of labour. The farmers will still choose it because they are having trouble finding labour in the first place.
If a farmer has trouble finding labor, they don't pay enough. The question is whether or not automation is cheaper than the actual rate that you have to pay in order to get somebody to do the manual labor. Not the rate you would like to pay.
Maybe it's just semantics, but I don't think "trouble finding labor" is a thing.
Anyways, thank you for your comments in this thread. Very insightful.
In a perfect market it isn't. In the real world, I know a big struggle in my area is simply getting enough people to come here in the first place. Not just farmers, but all businesses. It is a small population and there has been an recent economic turnaround, so all of a sudden there is a lot of work, but nobody nearby to do it. It will eventually correct as people start to move here, but that takes time. Possibly a lot of time. People tend to not uproot their entire lives to move to a new location on a whim, no matter how much money is on offer.
A shortage (the technical definition, not the one the newspapers like to use) is also possible under the right conditions. In my legal jurisdiction, the government has defined a price ceiling on doctor services. If there aren't enough doctors, we legally cannot offer them more money to attract them, or push other patients out of the market. Trouble finding doctors is very real, especially in rural communities where doctors are less apt to want to practice and no amount of money the patient is willing to offer is going to fix that.
In a properly functioning market, seems like competition between manufacturers would be the mechanism by which the gains would be passed along to the farmer. Are you saying that there is or will be insufficient competition in that market?
It think is the case. I would suggest that there are only three main players in the industry right now. And what smaller ones are out there seem to have little involvement in the kind of computer/electronics tech that would bring the automation being discussed here, but rather build simpler mechanical-focused machines.
When many of these machines can already be priced at amounts nearing $1M to buy as a farmer, I imagine the capital costs to develop that new equipment to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. The opportunity for a new business to build a new machine end-to-end, with that level of technology, is pretty small. It doesn't help that the market of farmers out there willing to buy these machines is also comparatively small to other markets that might appeal to someone with that skillset.
It becomes more complicated than that as not all manufactures have a strong dealership/service presence in all operating areas, so even if another manufacturer can technically offer you the same machine for less, you may not be able to consider it due to lack of reasonable service. Farm equipment breaks all the time, so service availability is an absolute necessity. That is even more important than the original purchase price.
Like if pesticides represent 0.1 percent of the retail price of some vegetable, I personally would consider it reasonable to spend 10x avoiding some pesticides. Because it would only have a modest impact at retail.
There are a few things you have to understand about these figures. The first is that only 15% of the retail price is the price of wheat. The rest is shipping, processing, packaging, waste, advertising, and profit. You can actually work out how much each bit actually adds to the price by looking at the price at each step. For example, if you look at wholesale wheat flour prices, you are looking at about $3-400 per tonne.
The reality is that distribution is the vast majority of the cost and each entity that touches the product along the way wants a big markup. Money costs and each party wants a return on investment, not a fixed return.
So, if we replaced fertiliser and pesticide with something that costs $400 instead of $40 per tonne of wheat, then the price of the wheat will go to $530. Ideally that will result in a retail price of ~$1500 (about a 25% increase), but in reality it's likely to be at least double.
Personally, I think this is worthwhile -- especially if the extra $360 per tonne would allow smaller farms and provide more jobs in the farming industry. I don't think it is realistic for 2 main reasons. First I have no idea if even $360 would be enough. Second, large corporations and rich people have a very vested interest in continuing the current trend of moving all of the price into distribution. These distribution channels can be controlled relatively easily and provide rent for them. It also keeps the world food price below the level that traditional farming can support. This means that rich countries can dismantle the agriculture industry of poor countries and then control them. I encourage anybody interested in this kind of thing to look at the conditions attached to government loans/subsidies to poor countries that are used to buy food. When you start looking at this stuff, you are playing with big players who have lots to gain/lose and who aren't going to give up anything easily.
I would expect the opposite. Wheat was worth a record-high ~$380/tonne back in 2008 and what happened was that the biggest farmers went spend-crazy on land, preventing the existing small farms from growing, and completely pushing thoughts of any new farm operations right out the window. We're still suffering the effects of that as price of land has yet to come down with the price of the crop.
> and provide more jobs in the farming industry.
I'm not sure that lack of jobs are really an issue in the farming industry, to be honest. There is already said to be a farm labour shortage as-is. I farm in Canada, so those are the numbers I'm most familiar with, but the news reports that there are 60,000 vacant farm jobs available. Other reports indicate that farm jobs have one of the fastest growing wages in the country (which I realize technically invalidates there being a shortage, but labour shortage has come to mean something other than shortage).
A big reason why agriculture has been pushing the boundaries of automation is a result of how hard it is to find labour. Especially skilled labour.
Anyway, as you seem to be a farmer, please let me convey my utmost respect. Seriously, thank you for being a farmer. We need more people like you.
That is interesting, because the exact opposite is true of my neighbours. Growing up, there were eight farm families clustered fairly close together. In all but one of those cases, the next generation (all still under 40) have become heavily involved with, if not completely taken over, their family's farm. And in that remaining case, the grandson is starting to take the same role.
The age statistics can be a little misleading as farms are multi-generational businesses, but they usually only count the primary farm operator for statistical purposes. Which, for legacy reasons, tends to be the oldest person still involved. In many cases there will be someone waiting in the wings to take that spot when retirement comes.
> I have no idea what's going to happen in 10-20 years and it worries me a lot.
I am less so. If there truly is a lack of young farmers, 2008 will happen again. Meaning that the food price will rise, and people will get all excited about the fortunes to be made. 2008 has already changed attitudes about farming. It was fascinating to watch people go from "why would you ever want to do that?" to "how can I become a farmer too?" over the span of those months. Farming suddenly became 'cool' as soon as there was money to be made. There has been far more interest from young farmers since that time, from what I can observe.
But people want to be farmers (i.e. the owner), not farmhands. Being a farmhand is still looked down upon, leading to lack of interest from labour. Interestingly, that could maybe even result in smaller farms down the road if automation doesn't solve the problem first.
Why would they?
(I get $15 from brief research; but even at $20 or $25, seasonal work with no benefits isn't a great job)
Coupled with the fact that the most productive farming regions in Canada have the lowest unemployment rates in the country, there is no reason why anyone has to settle for a farm job. They can get a job almost anywhere. Employers in these agriculture communities are desperate across the board for labour, not just those involved in agriculture.
Anyway, the economy is fundamentally self-correcting. I don't see there being anything to worry about. I'm biased as a small farmer, but I don't see slowing down the big producers as a bad thing.
Isn't that the exact definition of shortage? Prices rise because demand excess supply at the previous price.
That price is rising should invalidate the idea of a shortage, but labour shortage seems to have come to mean a situation where an employer has made their desire to hire known, but received no suitable applicants.
It is, yes, and ultimately says the same thing. I prefer the alternative phrasing as I think it more clearly explains the mechanisms, especially when people sometimes confuse demand to mean 'I want something'.
> Capped prices is one potential cause, but demand also isn't always very elastic and this can cause shortages on it's own.
I don't see it being contradictory. In an ideal model of inelastic demand, the demand never wanes no matter how high the price goes. However, price cannot continue to rise infinitely, so you have technically created a situation where price cannot rise again. It is still the price not being able to rise that characterizes the shortage in this case.
I did not mean to suggest that the government is the only thing that can cause prices to stop increasing. It was just one example.
It is interesting that the distribution, not production, dominated the prices since ancient times. 2500 yeas ago in Mediterranean transporting wheat 100 km over land doubled its price compared with price at a sea port which was already quite higher than production. In a bad year when local crop failed rich citizens prevented widespread hunger by buying enough extra bread overseas.
This isn't experimental. It's now owned by John Deere and is currently doing 10% of the US lettuce crop. Next, cotton. There's no problem with plants becoming resistant to weed-killers. Unless pigweed learns to look like lettuce, it's going to get zapped.
It's sold as a service. For $220 an acre, Blue River comes and zaps your weeds. Now available in the Salinas Valley and Yuma, AZ.
So you basically have couple of forms, either some microbes, viruses or some form of insects that eat on just one type of insect or of insect class. Another main form is pheromone confusion thingies: you put them in your orchard/vineyard/market garden and it make hard for males of your target pest to find female and procreate.
adding high maintenance robots is just silly.
As climate change brings us longer droughts and larger downpours, we should be farming in ways that build top soil for more resilient farmland.
(edit - adding link to http://www.fao.org/docrep/t0389e/t0389e02.htm)
I think the pro-GMO crowd thinks talking about sustainable farming is anti-science when it actually involves more science at a macro level to understand the effects of synthetic monoculture farming on soil, and it’s effects on climate change.
I'm new to growing and enjoying the steep but rewarding learning curve. Soil is an amazing thing and I think humans are only just getting a better idea of what's going on down there. This recent conference talk helps shed some light: "Building Soil Health for Healthy Plants by soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham" https://youtu.be/xzthQyMaQaQ
So true. A protein which makes up ~10% of soil by weight was only discovered in the 90s.
The most fascinating aspect of soil to me is that it's a natural carbon store, which for obvious reasons will become increasingly important in the coming years.
If someone can make a drone to fly around and take out pests like fruitfly that would be a massive step forward vs spraying.
Why bother with that when we already have controlled facilities where pests simply can't gain a foot hold in the first place, making that labor totally unnecessary?
To boot, you don't even need tractors to harvest. You can just pull the entire tray yourself once the NFT solution's drained from the channel.
I can take 1/8th of an acre of land, and produce a full acre of wheatgrass in two weeks and harvest it myself with no mechanical methods required in less than a couple of hours.
I was doing this 20 years ago in high school horticultural science class.
As far as field trucks go, well they're mostly old 15+ years with new-ish trailers because well trucking doesn't pay shit so it'll be long time before self driving trucks replace the current fleet (you have to figure the new trucks on the road now will because part time field trucks 20 years from now). If can get GPS accurate enough you could automate a lot of it, but trucks get stuck all the time in the field which mean the guy driving the chopper has to stop and pull the truck out.
It'll be tricky to automate all the weird oddities you come across out in the field. In the end these guys aren't making very much so the cost benefit doesn't really seem to be there but we'll see.
What would be really cool is automating crops that still require lots of manual labor. Like vegetables. That's the reason they are still so expensive. An automated greenhouse would be enormous news.
Whats also cool is stuff like this (https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robo...) which eliminates the need for pesticides.
My observations have been that vegetables are so inexpensive they're often thrown away?
Obviously these cheap crops are often grown in a monetarily cheap but environmentally destructive way but I've no idea where you're seeing these expensive vegetables for sale?
Same deal with coffee beans, which contributes to their higher price. The coffee beans do not ripen at the same time, so they must be hand-picked so the worker can identify which ones are ready. Lots of manual labor.
And with coffee being so widely consumed, savings here would easily be felt by a lot of people, although I doubt Starbucks would like it...
Any change, absolute or relative, would reduce their margin.
Or is your claim more narrow than that?
What crops have the highest labor costs, in both absolute dollars and as a percentage of what the consumer pays?
How do they actually taste? I know they're in the artichoke family, but I've never actually dug one up or whatever.
Perhaps if they could be blended and used as a base for bread or cakes, but I have no idea if they're safe in large quantities.
Good point, for most foraged stuff you definitely don't want it to make up more than a certain percentage of your diet. Not only because of the plants themselves, but also because it's hard to know how much heavy metals and other toxins they absorb. You should be fine treating it as a normal vegetable because it's known to be safe in those quantities, I just wouldn't eat it every meal for a week.
How far away is automation of those kinds of tasks, I wonder? I don't have much of any idea, myself.
I already farm a field that is one acre in size and one that is three acres because they are near to a large field that does justify the travel costs. Any that fit that description are likely to be already in production.
Understood. Marginal traditionally refers to the quality, but I wasn't sure how you thought the math would work. And since you mentioned size before, I went in that direction.
I am still unsure of how the math would work out. I have a farm that is already bordering on marginal and even ignoring labour costs it is difficult to turn a profit. Honestly, labour costs are a drop in the bucket. It costs hundreds of dollars per acre for input costs (seed, fertilizer, fuel, etc.), there is a significant capital cost to having the land and the machinery, while the labour if I paid myself minimum wage would be maybe $10 per acre over the course of the year. And I think that's pushing it. That is only 2% of the input costs when my other input costs are $500.
If a field is only 2% shy of not being marginal, I'm certain there is already someone trying to make it work.
> I don't agree with your characterization about farmers doing it for fun.
Well, that's why I do it, so I have some experience there. If it was about the money, I know software development pays far better.
> but outside of that radius you mostly have people who either already have farms
I was assuming that those who farm for fun would already have their own farm. However, now that you mention it, I always see the retired farmers are still keen to get back into the equipment, so it is not strictly limited to those who have their own farms. Living hours away from the nearest city, I don't really see it being an activity of those near the city.
I do wish for better food, and better life for farmers. Also I'm quite annoyed by mainstream tech (find it often uselessly improving the wrong parts of life).
Perhaps these would be a model for smaller autonomous combines.
This video, by the head of Harper Adams College, goes into a lot more detail:
Agricultural machinery size is now limited by train tunnel size for delivery.
Larger farm vehicles, although more productive per person are heavier and cause soil compaction, which then requires further treatments to fix. Mention was made of light robot tractors able to work wet fields earlier before they are dry enough for a heavy human tractor so extending they growing season. They show an example of a light weight tractor that can drive up and down on a wet field without turning it into mud.
I have always wondered who are these farmers in the dirt in the early morning? Where I farm the environment is rarely suitable for 'being in the dirt' in the morning. Typically the field work starts in the mid-afternoon after the sun has had a chance to dry up the morning's dew or previous days rain. There are definitely some late nights though.
That's what air conditioning is for!
Southern California vineyards, for one. Come work in 100+F heat at 9:30AM.
Still, there is no set pattern of farmer behaviour. It is interesting that the idea of get up early has become so pervasive.
Early to bed and early to rise. Also, our ancestors used to run more polyphasic sleep cycling.
good thing is that would be not require nearly as much 'babysitting' as growing crops just ability to charter uneven terrain.
What will it take to have a small fleet of robots to manage small farms - but many small farms.
What if a community of gardens and farms were dispersed around a neighborhood/small town - and the town shared the use of the autonomous robots wherever possible.
Which robots are common to all farms and which robots are specific to a given crop?
Also, the downplay the robot-management tasks (refueling, recharging, interceding in really bad weather to tell the robots "that'll do robot, no farming today" sort of stuff)
An open library of farm robots, the tasks they can do, their cost options, how much crop area /number of farms/acres they can manage, if they can multi-task between activities specific to tomatoes in one farm and corn in another etc...
That would be interesting data.
Then couple that with the open source civilization plans - and update those to make those items more intelligent for efficiencies in their designed tasks.
In 100 years, if we can get an atmosphere on mars, we just send a fully automated pre-colonizing farm fleet to prep our invasion.
Regardless, we could still have a fleet of robots go build structures there, then another that will grow things in the structures...
We talk about sending men to mars, but I think it's short-sighted to not first figure out how to send and deploy resources and robots to pre-build infrastructure for said humans - and we should be practicing on the moon.
Or why is it that nobody seems to be talking about this? And specifically talking about practicing in the moon?
Spacex is really focused on a rocket that can get to mars, how much more quickly can it get to the moon?
As far as I know SpaceX is focusing on sending "stuff" to Mars, not just humans. Humans are better than robots in many ways though, as in they can do a lot of more versatile stuff. We can build rovers to explore and take pictures, but building a robot that can mimic the palette of actions of a typical human is far beyond our reach at the moment.
I estimate they destroyed over 50% of my (potential) crop this year, which makes you wonder how much toxic stuff goes on all those perfect field-grown cabbages etc you see in supermarkets...
Seriously they are brilliant and the eggs are just this great bonus. The more insects they eat the tastier the eggs! You do need to visit them at least once per day, however auto-feeders and automatic coop openers do mean you are only going to collect eggs and maybe refill water. They also have amazing characters.
If you have a good relationship with other allotment holders then they can also collect eggs and look after them for you if you go on holiday.
If you do consider getting some, get point of lay chickens as they will give you a lot more eggs in the long run. Rescue chickens are a friendlier than some of the pure breeds but you do not get the variety of egg colours.
You do not need a cockerel but do expect hens to crow after laying. They love shouting about it.
But I'm curious, how would the chickens get to the slugs? Don't they have to be kept in a fenced off enclosure, away from the plants - otherwise they would damage young seedlings etc?
We do have a population of toads which I think eat the slugs, but they just don't eat enough of them! And the local cats, in turn, seem to be quite interested in eating the toads...
New tech is expensive and not very good - only big businesses see positive ROI. As some technology matures, it becomes a commodity for everyone.
Small farms could go do this right now. It just wouldn't make financial sense.
As far as actual food I'm more impressed by small scale open source farm bot projects and some of the innovative stuff permaculturists are doing without tech.
Factory farmers = Microsoft/Windows
Small scale farmers = Open Source/Linux
They would get a more accurate number if they calculated how much these machines depreciated over that period instead of just throwing in their total cost.
(I also build robots) :)
I'm just some engineer. But I'm a really imaginative and passionate person and I have a lot of ideas I care about. And so I write about those. I was inspired by reading The Martian, which was an amazing book written by a Software Engineer. It was after reading The Martian that I began writing.
Have you tried writing? What has been your blocker?
What also works best for me is writing the shit that I actually want to read, or developing the games that I actually want to play.
Write from the heart, and love it so much that you re-read your own stories.
Most people probably won't read it or like it. But that's just the game we play!
Minimal supply chains are necessary if you can produce crops autonomously at the point of consumption (think rooftop solar). It would be wildly inefficient to grow in each person's backyard, but not so to grow in the outer rings of urban areas.
Automated production is essential. Supply chains for abundant, distributed resources are superfluous.
Also, I'm not sure how automation of labor democratizes supply. supply isn't constrained by labor. It is constrained by yield. Automation won't solve that as much as chemical engineering or more land would.
It puts the control back in the hands of consumers of the product, instead of producers (which is more often than not, multinationals or large corporations who are motivated to extract as much profit as possible from their business transactions).
You do not have time or resources to farm your own plot of land (generally speaking, hand waving away the homesteaders here). Your ag co-op  does. This is to farming as AWS was to infrastructure (if I may be permitted to torture an analogy).
Well, society gets a say. Witness how both Canada and India have invalidated pharma patents, and how the US DoD is permitted to nullify patents when it suits them for strategic purposes .
Also, the US government can infringe on a patent with limited resource of the patent holder.
"Can the U.S. Government Infringe a U.S. Patent? (The U.S. Government Says it’s Impossible)"
"Although a patentee can sue the U.S. government for unlicensed use of its invention, Congress requires that those cases be filed in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) rather than in district court. No jury trial is available, and the only remedy is a reasonable royalty." 
I think its a bit defeatist to throw your arms up in the air and say "there is no hope, big companies will always win", but I'm an optimist.
I won't even source anything I can look around. Applaud your optimism.
"The students involved in the Hands Free Hectare project also suggest that this was probably “the most expensive hectare of barley ever,” with an overall budget of £200,000 from the U.K. government. Moonshots like this are understandably expensive, though, and since a huge chunk of that money went to capital costs (like buying a tractor and a harvester), the next crop will be vastly cheaper."