The fourth industrial revolution

Agriculture and rural business / 30 March 2017

Increased demand, Brexit, the new living wage and the increasing need to keep prices down are all factors that support the increased use of robots in UK agriculture.  Since 1973 there has been an improvement in labour productivity but the increase in the world’s population is such that it will never be enough alone.

There is already a great deal of automation in UK farming and an increased use of robots in the food industry and this has brought about huge benefits.  Calving sensors for instance have reduced mortality rates by 2 to 3%, variable slurry applications help to meet cross compliance and automated calf feeding systems save between 2 to 3 hours a day of manual labour.  Autonomous tractors carrying herbicide sprayers have been proven to save up to 75% of herbicide and those with on- board weed detection systems, kill 90% of weeds on a field.

The UK is behind most of its European allies in the use of robots.  Despite the UK’s advanced manufacturing economy, there are just 71 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees compared with almost 500 in South Korea, about 300 in Japan and Germany, and approaching 200 in Sweden and Denmark.

There are initiatives across the UK agricultural sector to increase its use of robots and improve yield whilst reducing the resources required and making farming a progressive, competitive and high tech profession.  Both European and domestic government funding has been made available to develop robots for use in agriculture, specifically robots that can pick fruit and vegetables, plant, spray and take a measurement.  Other funding is difficult to obtain however, as the banks remain reticent about funding what is effectively the development of an untried process with no guarantee of success.

In the years to come, farmers and all of those in the food supply chain will have to embrace robots in the same way as the manufacturing and car industry has.  Those working in agriculture should not fear an increase in robotic labour as it will enable them to move to other jobs in the industry that are less repetitive and more rewarding (both personally and financially).  It will also enable UK agriculture to remain competitive in a global market where there is ever increasing demand.


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