Small agriculture robots, help with food fakes?

Wednesday 24th January 2018
Food fakes & agriculture robots

A  British fake turkey scandal this year revealed  two criminals  passing off turkey mince as lamb to restaurants. They were jailed for five years. Food fraud is big business. Estimates suggest 10% of the global supply chain or £50 billion worth of produce is affected. Neither Britain or the EU are  immune, despite the tougher regulatory regime than in, say, Asia. But news that fleets of small agricultural robots emerging may also offer a neat solution to food fraud.

Major retailers and manufacturers admitted four years ago a they had unwittingly put horsemeat in some of their frozen beef dishes, such as lasagne, in a scandal that sparked an industry-wide panic and a huge loss of consumer confidence. Premium products feel most at risk for firms. Large animals as sheep and cows can be electronically tagged. But fish or chicken are another issue. The answer could just be found using forensic science. Several firms have worked on technology that enables them to check animal flesh  to see where it was reared.

 Fleets of small agricultural robots emerging
Autonomous mobile robots are causing a paradigm shift in the way commercial and industrial vehicles are envisaged. Traditional thinking, bigger is often better because bigger vehicles being are faster are more productive. but the he rise of autonomous mobility is upending this approach where fleets of small slow robots will replace or complement large fast manned vehicles and may help against specialist food fraud.

Telltale signs of locality, from minerals in the grass cows eat to the sea where fish are caught/farmed. has scientists use spectrometry for a molecular fingerprint of the flesh of the fish, or at least of the smoke off it when it is singed.

DNA of course is the absolute test but expensive and   used  only with premium producers for protection from fakes. Loch Duart is the first salmon producer to fingerprint fish as it trades on its quality and sustainability reputation, becoming aware that wholesalers were passing off fish as Loch Duart when they were not. This year a company director was fined £200,000 and given a community sentence for fraudulently changing the labels on salmon destined for export.

 Loch Duart MD Alban Denton is quoted: “We are really proud of our extraordinary tasting salmon which is asked for by name worldwide. If another salmon is ‘passed off’ as ours, consumers are being both exploited and misled. Our distributors have told us that it happens.”

But now robotic technology is also quietly transforming the world of agriculture plausibly predicted grow to become a $45Bn industry by 2028 and it is a diverse  industry is in terms of forms, functions and fortunes. The report  Agricultural Robots and Drones 2018-2038: Technologies, Markets, Players develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will enter into different aspects of agriculture and how it will change the way farming is done. 

It will provide 20-year forecasts for 16 categories including static milking robots, mobile dairy farm robotics, autonomous agricultural small robots (data scouts, weeding and multi-platform), autonomous tractors (simple guidance, autosteer, fully unmanned autonomy), robotic implements (simple and highly intelligent), robotic strawberry harvesting, robotic fresh fruit picking, and agricultural drones (data scouts, data services/analytics, multi-functional drones, unmanned spraying helicopters).

Will tractors evolve towards full unmanned autonomy?
Tractor guidance and autosteer are well-established technologies. In the short to medium terms, both will continue their growth thanks to improvements and cost reductions in RTK GPS technology. Indeed, we estimate that around 700k tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold in 2028. We also assess that tractor guidance sales, in unit numbers and revenue, will peak around 2027-2028 before a gradual decline commences. This is because the price differential between autosteer and tractor guidance will narrow, causing autosteer to attract more of the demand. Note that our model accounts for the declining cost of navigational autonomy (e.g., level 4 for autosteer).

Unmanned autonomous tractors have also been technologically demonstrated with large-scale market introduction largely delayed -not by technical issues but by regulation, high sensor costs and the lack of farmers' trust. This will start to slowly change from 2024 onwards. The sales will however only slowly grow. We estimate that around 40k unmanned fully-autonomous (level 5) tractors will be sold in 2038. The take up will remain slow as users will only slowly become convinced that transitioning from level 4 to level 5 autonomy is value for money. This process will be helped by the rapidly falling price of the automaton suite.

Overall, our model suggests that tractors with some degree of autonomy will become a $27Bn market at the vehicle level (our model also forecasts the added value that navigational autonomy provides). These robots also appear like strange creatures at first: they are small, slow, and lightweight. They therefore are less productive on a per unit basis than traditional vehicles. The key to success however lies in fleet operation. This is because the absence of a driver per vehicle enables remote fleet operation. Our model suggests that there is a very achievable operator-to-fleet-size ratio at which such agrobots become commercially attractive in the medium term.

We are currently at the beginning of the beginning. Indeed, most examples of such robots are only in the prototypes or early stage commercial trial phase.  These robots however are now being trailed in larger numbers by major companies whilst smaller companies are making very modest sales.  The infection point, our models suggest, will arrive in 2024 onwards. At this point, sales will rapidly grow. These small agrobot fleets themselves will also grow in capability, evolving from data acquisition to weeding to offering multiple functionalities. Overall, we anticipate a market as large as $900M and $2.5Bn by 2028 and 2038, respectively. This will become a significant business but even it will remain a small subset of the overall agricultural vehicle industry.

Implements will become increasingly intelligent
Implements predominantly perform a purely mechanical functional today. There are some notable exceptions, particularly in organic farming. Here, implements are equipped with simple row-following vision technology, enabling them to actively and precisely follow rows.

This is however changing as robotic implements become highly intelligent. Indeed, early versions essentially integrated multiple computers onto the implement. These are today used for advanced vision technology enabled by machine learning (e.g., deep learning). Here, the intelligent implements learn to distinguish between crops and weeds as the implement is pulled along the field, enabling them to take site-specific weeding action.We anticipate that such implements will become increasingly common in the future. They are currently still in their early generations where the software is still learning, and the hardware is custom built and ruggedized by small firms.

Recent activities including acquisitions by major firms suggest that this is changing.

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