Robots ready as workers turn away from agri-food

Collecting eggs, packing tomatoes, weeding, checking animal welfare, harvesting fruits, and detecting pests in crops will all be performed by robots in the not-too-distant future, says Erik Pekkeriet, Business Development Manager for the Agro Food Robotics programme in the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, one of the world’s top-ranked universities for agricultural research.

In the Agro Food Robotics programme, Wageningen researchers work on development of robots in the intensive agriculture and food processing sectors, which are major sectors in the Netherlands.

But the factors making robots more important exist in other countries also.

With the international experience of fewer and fewer people being prepared to put up with the poor working conditions in agriculture, Wageningen researchers are developing robots that can do agricultural work, such as weeding, harvesting, and packing, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Equipped with cameras and sensors, motorised robot platforms and hands are more precise than human beings.

Ironically, it advances in information and communications technology (ICT) that have made robots more important in agriculture and food.

Pekkeriet explains that working conditions in these sectors have declined, primarily due to increased mechanisation and ICT.

The work used to be varied, and people were able to stop and chat with each other.

Now, they work by themselves, or together in noisy rooms with earplugs and protective clothing.

“Social interaction is barely possible, and people do the same thing all day long. The human component of the work is very monotonous and extremely repetitive”, explains Pekkeriet.

In the agriculture and food industries, the use of robots is very promising. Robots enable us to make up for the shortage in the workforce. It is also possible to achieve higher production with robots.

People have become a kind of machine. Only their productivity matters.

Software measures exactly how much someone harvests, processes, or packages.

Many businesses hang “green/white/red” lists in the break rooms.

Pekkeriet says: “Employees in the green row are performing well, and will receive a bonus, those in the white row are acceptable, and those who spend two weeks in the red row will have to find a different job.

“That puts a lot of pressure on the employees.”

The work locations are anything but comfortable.

The temperature and humidity in greenhouses is high. Out in the fields, employees may spend the entire day under the burning sun. Packing work is done in freezing cold rooms, so that the products have a longer shelf life.

In the Netherlands, for years, Dutch people have rarely done this type of work, even during seasonal periods.

Foreign workers, especially Polish, have been filling this role.

However, even Polish workers, known for their strong work ethic, find it difficult to tolerate anymore.

Pekkeriet says that roughly one-quarter of the Polish workers have left the field in recent years, and that the number is growing.

It’s not just the Netherlands that is struggling with shortage of suitable employees.

“It is a worldwide problem.

“For example, in China and Japan, young people are heading to the city for jobs in service or in ICT. The rural working population has become older.

“Even in these areas, the increasing use of robots is considered a solution.”

In Wageningen, about 60 researchers are involved in development of robots that can perform agricultural work such as weeding, harvesting, and packing.

Robots are still not quite able to perform these complicated processes properly.

Researchers are addressing that shortfall with auto-didactic systems, spectral camera technologies, and robot hands, among other strategies.

Pekkeriet explains that there are roughly two types of agricultural robots.

“The motorised and airborne field robots are vehicles that can carry items such as weeding tools and cameras.

“There are also robot hands and arms that can target individual products for harvesting, pruning, weeding, or packing.”

Thanks to cameras and sensors, motorised robot platforms and hands are more precise, and work better than human beings.

They can collect all manner of data regarding time and place and can even detect diseases and pests.

“If there are pests on the crop, it can be difficult for us to see whether there are more or less of them after three days.

A robot can do that exceptionally well and can also check more often”, explains Pekkeriet. Furthermore, the robot can locally control or treat the pests or disease, which means decreased use of pesticides.

Robots have other advantages.

Extreme temperatures do not affect them.

Robot vehicles are lightweight, they do less damage to the soil in the fields. “Robot vehicles operate in closed off fields instead of public spaces, and never move faster than 5 kilometres per hour.

Large field robots are already driving around without supervision, but commercial use is still in the initial stages”, says Pekkeriet.

“In the agriculture and food industries, the use of robots is very promising”, says Pekkeriet. He expects that they’ll be doing all the menial, repetitive work in ten to 20 years from now.

“Since a robot can work day and night and can last for several years, they will soon be appropriate and affordable for smaller-scale farmers.

“Robots make it possible to achieve higher production.

“They work 24/7 too, so it is not a problem if they work a bit slower than people.”

It’s a far cry from the farm in the eastern Netherlands where mechanical engineer Erik Pekkeriet grew up.

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