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1 September, 2016 - 08:59 By Kate Sweeney

Agricultural robotics and drones: a complex $10bn market within six years

idtechex, cambridge

Robots and drones have already started to quietly transform many aspects of agriculture and could be set to trigger an AgriTech revolution ploughing billions into business initiatives in the sector.

The potential for the technology is spelled out in a special report by Cambridge UK-based consultancy IDTechEx Research; ‘Agricultural Robots and Drones 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, and Players’ finds that this is already a $3 billion market in 2016 ands tipped to swell to $10bn by as early as 2022.

The report authored by Dr Khasha Ghaffarzadeh analyses how robotic market and technology developments will change the business of agriculture, enabling ultra-precision farming and helping address the key global challenges.

It develops a detailed roadmap of how robotic technology will enter into different aspects of agriculture, how it will change the way farming is done and transform its value chain, how it becomes the future of agrochemicals business, and how it will modify the way we design agricultural machinery.

The report provides segmented 10-year market forecasts for at least 14 categories of agricultural robots and drones. It includes detailed technology roadmaps showing how different robotic/drone technologies in different agricultural sectors will evolve. It contains 20 interview-based company profiles together with 120 other company profiles or backgrounds.

In the IDTechEx report, Dr Ghaffarzadeh outlines the key areas for progress. Dairy farms: Thousands of robotic milking parlours have already been installed worldwide, creating a $1.9bn industry that is projected to grow to $8.5bn by 2026. Mobile robots are also already penetrating dairy farms, helping automate tasks such as feed pushing or manure cleaning.

Autonomous tractors: Tractor guidance and autosteer technologies are also going mainstream thanks to improvements and cost reductions in RTK GPS technology.
More than 300k tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold in 2016, rising to more than 660k units per year by 2026.

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 all change by 2022 and sales of unmanned or master-slave (e.g. ‘follow me’) tractors will reach $200m by 2026.

Agricultural drones: Unmanned remote-controlled helicopters have been spraying rice fields in Japan since the early 1990s. Autonomous drones have also been providing detailed aerial maps of farms, enabling farmers to take data-driven, site-specific action.

Dr Ghaffarzadeh said: “This development will soon enter its boom years as regulatory barriers lower and the precision farming ecosystems finally comes together. In time, the drone hardware will become commoditised and value will shift largely to data acquisition and analytics providers. Agriculture will be a major market for drones, reaching $485m in 2026.”

Robotic weeding implements: Vision-enabled robotic implements have been in commercial use for some years in organic farming. These implements follow the crop rows, identify the weeds and aid with mechanical hoeing.

The next generation of these advanced robotic implements is also in its early phase of commercial deployment. It will be using large troves of data to train its algorithms using deep learning techniques. This will become a $380m market by 2026, says IDTechEx.

Unmanned autonomous robotic weeders and data scouts: Vision-enabled and intelligence robots are increasingly reaching navigational autonomy. These small, slow and light robots will be autonomously roaming the farms, analysing plants and taking specific actions such as eliminating a weed. Already, numerous companies and groups have developed and deployed a variety of weeding robots.

Whilst most products are in prototype or semi-commercial trail phase, the first notable sales have also taken place aimed at small multi-crop vegetable farmers. This will become $300m market by 2026.

Fresh fruit harvesting: Despite non-fresh fruit harvesting being largely mechanised, fresh fruit picking has remained mostly out of the reach of machines or robots. 
Progress here has been hampered by the stringent technical requirements together with the lack of CAD models and the fragmented nature of the market putting off investment.

This is beginning to change, albeit slowly, says Dr Ghaffarzadeh. “A limited number of fresh strawberry harvesters are already being commercially trialled whilst fresh apple and citrus harvesters have also reached the level of late stage prototyping. Market adoption will start from 2021 onwards, reaching $230m by 2026.”

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