Food Bubble: Robots that run the farm

When most people think of robotics, they probably don’t imagine dairy parlours or farm fields.

In this episode of Food Bubble, host Andrew Campbell takes us to those very places, as he investigates the role of robots in food production, from milking systems to automated field work.

Dairy

Lely Canada’s Tony Brazda first became interested in robotics for milking when he worked on an early prototype of the system in Germany. That system never made it to market, but, in 1999 Lely Canada installed its first milking robot in the country.

“The first advantage…would be the labour flexibility,” says Brazda, adding that installing a milking system offers operators lifestyle gains.

And it’s not only the operators who are benefiting. According to Brazda, research has shown the cows have lower levels of adrenaline, improved reproduction efficiency, and increased milk production in robotic systems. They also, he says, tend to live longer.

But change doesn’t always come easy, and it took a while for farmers to adapt to the idea that a machine could do their work. As a result, the majority of Lely Canada’s growth has actually just occurred in the last few years.

Field work

Meanwhile, in the field cropping side of the industry, robotics is evolving past auto-guidance systems, and towards full autonomy.

“There’s so many efficiency gains by making it a unit that’s self-propelled, that picks up the implement of choice, and does the job that it has to do and then switches implements by carrying something else,” says Norbert Beaujot, founder of DOT Technology Corp.

In order to utilize the technology, the operator (who isn’t completely replaceable) first has to create a precise map with boundaries and obstacles. DOT’s software program then develops a path plan, comprised of GPS waypoints (or dots – hence the name) depending on the implement in question. The robot, DOT, merely needs to follow those waypoints.

According to Beaujot, developing a path plan for a 300 acre field takes less than one second, and the farmer can watch DOT move through the field, on-screen, improvising, as desired, headlands, seeding direction and more.

Beaujot says the efficiency increases as the operator supervises more robots, and the design of the machine allows for decreases in metal, as well as fuel savings.

And, if you ask DOT’s Leah Olson, the adoption of robotic technologies in agriculture could be a lot faster than people are anticipating, thanks in part to farmers’ increased use of digital technology, as well as current challenges like labour shortages.

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