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China could leapfrog the West on robot farming

Commercialisation of cheap, unmanned robotic farmers or farmbots could help Chinese farmers reduce waste and fertiliser use

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A robot seed planter, one of many designs that could be used on farms soon (Image by RoboTrac)

Just like the spread of mobile phones in Africa, China could bypass existing agricultural machine technology and “leapfrog” to robotic farming, suggests a leading engineer.
 
Agricultural robots (also known agribots or farmbots) are unmanned robots that can be used to undertake tasks around the farm, such as applying fertilisers, harvesting or even rounding up livestock in remote areas. 
 
As yet there are no commercially available agricultural robots, although a number of countries are trialing different inventions, including a robotic weed remover in Denmark and autonomous tractors in China and Japan.
 
Long-time expert Simon Blackmore, a professor of engineering at Harper Adams University in the UK, spent 12 years as a visiting professor at China Agricultural University (CAU) and says the Chinese government’s desire to develop rural areas could see robotic farming take-off in the country.
 
“It wouldn’t surprise me if China came out in the lead and started to commercially produce robot machines. If they are small and cheap to run then they could end up being leap technologies.
 
“The Chinese government have made it clear that after the development of cities and infrastructure, they now want to do more for the rural areas,” he says.
 
Professor Blackmore, who set up the precision farming centre at CAU, says China and the West face similar challenges, for example, the availability of agricultural workers and the need for more efficient and sustainable farming, all of which make robot technologies appealing.
 
“They haven’t got an unlimited supply of cheap labour, but a very ageing population in rural areas. New technologies could be used to encourage more young people to stay in the countryside and make it more efficient.”
 
“The phase we’re in at the moment is operator-assist technologies, with semi-skilled operators doing a complex job. Already new tractors in China and the West have automatic steering and GPS guidance to help avoid overlap."
 
The current barriers to widespread uptake, according to Professor Blackmore, are education and creating a support network for the robotic machinery. There is also, so far, a lack of support from existing machinery companies.

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