Beyond the Robofarm


It’s easy to get momentarily excited about robots on the farm, particularly if they are close to home, picking apples or herding stock.

Robots have been rolling out onto farms elsewhere for several years and the pace is picking up, so NZ is in a sense catching up in terms of field applications.

New Zealand has ag-related robotics companies too. RoboticsPlus, Scott, Pastoral Robotics, InvertRobotics, and Scion”s & the University of Canterbury’s tree climbing bot (under development) are examples. Processing rather than ambulatory robots are further along the commercialisation path.


Robots are a means not an end

But it is false to think that robots are the future of farming. Sure they provide important capabilities, or help fill the gaps in human labour. But as I noted in a previous post, there are a range of future scenarios for farming in New Zealand, and robots are only a tool not an end.

The current range of agricultural robots is largely used to replace or support traditional farm workers, and so just another way of making farming practices more efficient (and in some cases safer or have less detrimental environmental impacts).

Urban automated farming and alternative ways of producing protein are heading that way too. In addition, a growing impetus towards circular economies is also influencing farming. So making a profit with commodities may become more challenging, even with robotic helpers.

While robots on the farm help individual farmers with the work they do, they don’t do much in themselves to improve the “Value-add”  of the sector – producing more valuable products from plants and animals, and turning wastes into resources.

This has long been promoted, but progress is slow. KiwiNet provides some examples of more innovative agricultural R&D, but creating viable more valuable commercial products is tough.

The future of farming, particularly in New Zealand, then isn’t “just add robots”. In futures-speak robots can be a signal of change, but on their own they aren’t what will drive substantial change. There is a bigger systemic issue to address.


Time for better policies, structures, and cultures

Turner et al. call it New Zealand’s “agricultural innovation system.” They noted that science is still often in silos here, not well connected across disciplines and with industry. The small size of many NZ firms (farms included) makes it difficult for them to be entrepreneurial, or to gather and share knowledge. And Crown Research Institutes tend to take lower risk decisions about where they get their funding from, because of the requirement to return a dividend to the government.

This has been well known for decades. Newish initiatives such as science challenges, Centres of Research Excellence, and Callaghan Innovation, are attempting to reduce these innovation barriers. But changes are slow, and old policies, practices, structures and cultures need to evolve too.

We don’t just need robots on farms, we need policies and funding that better incentivises change, and the human element. More people who can help connect those in fields, labs, and foreign markets to great opportunities. This connector role is something I touched on in my “Constant gardener” scenario a few years ago.

Featured image created with Deep Dream Generator