Robotics for harvesting is a promising emergent type of farm tech, as farmers grapple with increasing costs of labor and energy and declining profitability. Although there are still few products that have reached the commercial market, early adopters alone represent a $5.5 billion market.
That’s in spite of the fact that only 3% of growers are currently using harvesting robots on their farms, according to a market research report from Alpha Brown. Most of those currently in use among these farmers are local, independent products or prototypes.
Twenty-seven percent of the 1,300 growers surveyed for Alpha Brown’s report, Agriculture Robotics Harvesting Solutions: Early Adopter Market Potential, said that they are considering purchasing a robotics machine to help with harvesting. Most would do so to off-set the cost of labor.
“[Labor] is the most crucial consideration for farmers, and will determine the level of implementation of this technology in the market,” the report states. Alpha Brown’s calculation for the market value of harvesting robotics was based on offsetting existing labor costs.
Growers also cited time-saving and efficiency and ensuring that the harvest happens on time, as other reasons for considering robotics.
The report notes that financial concerns are both the strongest deterrent and motivator for farmers to adopt robotics. Farmers who have not yet integrated harvesting robotics into their operations said it was because the technology is too expensive or they believe their farms are too small to warrant robotics.
Only 4% of respondents indicated that they do not believe current robotic machines harvest well enough.
Harvesting capability is an issue, however: 7% of growers said they would prefer one machine that can harvest multiple crops, but the models making their way to market currently all are specific to one crop.
Who Are The Early Adopters?
Farmers already using or anticipating using harvesting robots vary by farm size and crops. Alpha Brown says most early adopters are likely running large operations of 500 acres or more. These farmers both have more capital available and face high labor costs, creating a stronger incentive for alternatives to human labor.
As for crops, the seasonality, delicacy and labor requirements of each crop make the case for robotic harvesting slightly different.
Greenhouse growers are the most interested in integrating harvesting robotics into their operations; with 34% of growers reporting that they are considering it.
Greenhouses have stable conditions that are friendlier to robotics machinery. They also operate outside of standard growing seasons, leading to a higher number of permanent employees and a greater likelihood of a robotic harvester being used year-round.
A higher portion of greenhouse growers—65%—said they have no intention of purchasing a robotic harvesting machine. Size of operations is one factor. Forty percent said their operations are small enough to be managed with human harvesters. Indeed, greenhouse operations represented the largest percentage of small operations (under 500 acres) in Alpha Brown’s research.
Vegetable growers show slightly more interest in robotics than the average grower, with 30% of respondents reporting that they are considering purchasing a robotic harvesting machine compared to the 27% average. A key reason is because vegetable growers maintain a steadier workforce than other field crops, with 40% of vegetable farms having permanent employees.
Reduction of labor costs is not the only reason vegetable growers are looking to robotics, however. Quality of harvest is another.
“Developments in this aspect (solutions being developed) should focus on quality advantages when marketing the solution to farmers,” reads the report.
Fruit growers’ interest in robotics is on par with the average across all farms. For them, integrating robotics into their operations must help with a unique growing challenge: they deal with the most delicate produce, much of which must remain attractive and blemish-free all the way to the grocery floor.
“Fruit-specific harvesting solutions should focus largely on picking the best fruit without harming it, as has been done with the present developments in this field,” reads the report.