An army of robots working the fields

An army of robots working the fields

October 11, 2017

An army of robots working the fields

Technological innovation in robotics is slowly but inexorably making its presence felt in agriculture, leading to huge changes in productivity and the social structure of agribusiness.

Robots working in the fields instead of people: it is not a scene from a science-fiction film, but the future of agriculture which, although more slowly than in other sectors, is becoming increasingly reliant on robotics. It is a revolution not without challenges, but one that is looking inevitable given the incontrovertible need to radically reform today’s agribusiness. According to the Eating Planet report published by the BCFN, by 2050, the global population will be close to 10 billion people and we will need to double food production to feed everyone. Consequently, robots could be a solution – if only a partial one – to the problem. 

From sowing to harvesting

The first “robots” to emerge in the agricultural sector date back to the 1990s, in the form of tractors with GPS systems which helped to improve the efficiency of activities in the field, for instance preventing farmers from going over the same area twice. Since then, huge progress has been made in agriculture-based robotics and technology has enabled machines with extremely diverse operations to be developed. Drones and small robots similar to the modules usually seen during space exploration missions to other planets are able to accurately analyse ground conditions by collecting data on the composition of the soil, the presence of water and the level of crop growth. But that is not all: in the first few months of 2017, a Swiss company carried out a field test of a robot, due for commercial release from 2018, which is able to selectively eliminate weeds and subsequently reduce the use of dangerous pesticides. 


From Spain to Japan, robots are being developed which are able to recognise ripe strawberries, pick them and even place them in the right trays, while some companies are specialising in producing robots designed to pick fresh fruit from trees: these machines are able to recognise fruit based on its colour, size and shape, delicately pick it and place it in the right container. 

A social revolution too

Robots in agriculture really could make all the difference: increasing productivity by accurately pinpointing the optimum times and methods to sow, treat, irrigate and harvest; protecting the environment by reducing the amounts of water and seeds wasted and limiting the use of pesticides; relieving people of tiring and dangerous operations. The European Union (EU) recognises the importance of robotics in the agricultural sector as it continues to fund projects aimed at introducing new technology into agriculture: one of the standout projects, Clever Robots for Crops, supported as part of the EU’s framework research funding programme FP7, aims to develop automation and robotic instruments for managing harvests sustainably. 

Despite making an excellent start, there are a series of obstacles which have prevented robotics from making an entirely successful entrance into agriculture. 


Among the most significant are the high costs of robots and the mistrust of farmers worried about losing their crops as a result of programming errors or mistakes in managing these new sophisticated helpers. There is also concern about the social change caused by the use of robots which could lead to a reduction in the number of employees in the sector, as people are replaced by machines able to work non-stop 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. However, the experts explain that this is only a marginal risk, since certain operations will still have to be done by people. In fact, the introduction of robots in agriculture could have a positive social impact, by encouraging the return of younger generations into a sector which has traditionally struggled to attract them.  

Learn more about similar topics:

Find out more about Food and society