Farmers, rural businesses and academics are grappling with what robotics could mean for agriculture in the next few decades. 

Key points:

  • Farms of the future could be run by swarms of small robots
  • However, one expert warns robotics could pose threats to the environment too
  • Startup founder says current ag robots are just “the tip of the iceberg”

Robots are not widely used in agriculture at the moment, but companies are trialling robots for tasks such as weed control, data collection and fruit picking.

Agricultural economist Dr Thomas Daum said, in the next 20 years, robotics could create an agricultural “utopia” or “dystopia” depending on what type of robot technology is developed in that time.  

Dr Daum said small, intelligent robots could make agriculture more environmentally friendly, with robots doing work, such as controlling weed without using chemicals, which aren’t practical to hire humans to do. 

Thomas Daum

Dr Thomas Daum says agricultural robotics could have great benefits and costs for the environment. (

Supplied: Sabina Cato

)

“Currently, some of those practices are not practical because labour is expensive, and labour is scarce in farming, and it’s very expensive.

Robots could address issues

“Therefore, farms have grown, we used tractors, we used chemicals, all these things we used to get more out of labour,” he said.

 “Now, with robots, we could address these issues.

“We could have swarms of robots running around the field, we could return to smaller plot sizes, we could plant more trees, we could have a much higher diversity of crops, and we could reduce the amount of agrochemicals we use without compromising on yield.”

However, Dr Daum said it was also possible the farms of the future would be dominated by large, simple robots, which may cause environmental degradation. 

“Robots may work best when things are most fractured and [simple] so in a dystopia [scenario] everything is simplified for them.

“You would have bigger fields with monoculture crops. Some might think we may use more agrochemicals because, with the operators removed from the field, that’s less of a concern,” he said. 

Robots may increase efficiency 

SwarmFarm is an agricultural robotics startup in Queensland which makes autonomous robots for farmers. 

SwarmFarm’s Andrew Bate said he believed robotics had a lot of potential to make agriculture more efficient. 

“[Agriculture is] so reliant on either pesticides and chemicals to kill weeds or mechanical disturbance of soil to kill weeds.

“We don’t do things like pulling weeds out of the ground, which was done years ago but is no longer considered practical or possible or efficient and modern agriculture,” he said. 

Robots in action

Darling Downs farmer Jamie Grant has used robots for weed control on his property for the past two years. 

He said using robots had cut down how much he had spent on pesticides by up to 98 per cent in some of his paddocks. 

Jamie Grant

Farmer Jamie Grant says using robots means he’s cut down on his use of chemicals significantly. (

Supplied: Jamie Grant

)

“By using the robot continuously, we’re spraying now proactively rather than reactively, so we’re spraying smaller weeds, and therefore the cameras or sprayers run for less time,” he said. 

How robotics could make farming better for the environment
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