Image: iStock/lamyai

Farmers have long struggled with operational optimization and labor concerns. Finding enough labor to get the job done, as well as keeping workers safe is a constant struggle.

“There is an immediate need to improve efficiency and reduce costs, especially now that the pandemic has exposed just how fragile the supply chain is,” said Suma Reddy, CEO of Future Acres, an agricultural robotics and artificial intelligence company. “We saw shortages in both production and more workers being put at risk when picking specialty crops on a daily basis that have really caused the industry to take a step back and re-examine how we can create greater resiliency in the food chain.”

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One idea is to equip farms with a combination of AI and robotics that can “think through” as well as do some of the physical work of farming.

“We introduced Carry for that purpose,” Reddy said. “It’s an autonomous, electric agricultural robotic harvest companion to help farmers gather hand-picked crops faster and with less physical demand.”

The Future Acres Carry helps transport harvested crops using AI.
Image: Future Acres

The self-driving Carry vehicle uses a combination of AI, automation and electric power to transport up to 500 pounds of crops. Reddy estimates that Carry can increase production efficiency by up to 30%, paying for the vehicle investment in 80 days.

“Our initial launch was targeted at customers at small- to medium-sized table-grape farms in the U.S. that are larger than 100 acres,” Reddy said. “Grapes were the specialty crop we focused on initially, but the specialty crop market covers more than just grapes, and we believe that Carry can improve the harvesting of those types of crops as well.”

Morder Intelligence estimates that the AI market in agriculture, valued at $766.41 million in 2020, will reach $2.5 billion by 2026. This is a compound annual growth rate of 21.52% between 2021 and 2026.

SEE: Smart farming: How IoT, robotics, and AI are tackling one of the biggest problems of the century (TechRepublic)

In this market, Carry is just one example of an array of autonomous technologies in agriculture that include AI, robotics and automation. Other examples are autonomous tractors and harvesters, as well as aerial drones that map fields and identify topography, soil types and moisture content from the air to provide input for prescriptive fertilizers that AI develops in order to optimize crop yields.

“In our case, we wanted to provide a robotic harvest companion that can transport up to 500 pounds of crops on all types of terrain and in all weather conditions,” Reddy said. “To do this, we use machine learning and computer vision capabilities that enable the vehicle to avoid obstacles like trees and people, and to collect and apply data to further optimize precision and efficiency.”

SEE: Future of farming: AI-enabled harvest robot flexes new dexterity skills (TechRepublic)

As with any technological advancement, trial-and-error proofs of concept are needed. Farming operational habits also need to be changed in order to take advantage of new technology.

What Reddy and others in the field have learned is that trialing AI and robotics in actual use cases offers the only true test of how well the technology performs. This is a universal truth for all types of AI and robotics—not just the ones that find themselves in a farmer’s field.

As a one-time Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, Reddy wanted to “build a better bridge between how we manage our resources and build a better future.” Her company and others are now transforming agriculture with the help of big data, analytics and hardware, and it can’t come too soon. The United Nations estimates that in 30 years, the global population will reach 9.7 billion people, and there will be a need to provide 50% more food by 2050.

Now is the time for AI and robotics solution providers to jump in.