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Robotics ROI could edge out traditional implements for some operations

Growers need to determine whether it’s worth it or not depending on use

Agricultural robotics aim to do the jobs no person wants to do or the tasks that are simple but time-consuming.
“We have to start automating tasks for two reasons,” said Sougata Pahari, CEO and founder of Korechi. “Somebody needs to work on the farm, but also this will draw new blood, fresh blood into the industry, which is very important.”

Why it matters: Greater use of robotics would help address farm labour shortages but requires careful calculation of return on investment.

Pahari, who designs ag robots, said robot performance encourages the adoption of automation but calculating the return on investment (ROI) is challenging because it’s not a one-size-fits-all determination.
At the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Conference last month, Pahari said a shrinking labour pool, increasing costs of operation and decreasing profits are motivators for new technology adoption. Depending on the level of automation, robots could provide hefty savings.

“I would say most of the robots on display today are in level three, where you tell the robot what to do, and it goes out and does it to a great extent, except you will need to maintain it and charge it,” said Pahari.

“Level four would be a robot where you would require minimal intervention. You just tell it at the beginning of the season what to do.”

For example, a robot could mow a field, freeing up tractors, implements and human labour for intricate tasks. Producers could realize further savings via the robot’s speed, efficiency and precision in chemical input and seed application.

To illustrate his point, Pahari compared the hourly cost of running a 40-horsepower tractor with implements worth $60,000 against a vegetation management robot worth $80,000. He set labour cost at $15 an hour and fuel and electricity were priced according to February 2022 rates.

“Involvement with the 40-horsepower tractor is 100 per cent, (a person) has to be in the cab to drive it,” he said. “Whereas we expect just one-eighth that involvement when it comes to a robot; ideally, just deploying it in the field in the morning and then picking it up in the evening and put- ting it in for charging.”

The robot’s required human labour costs $1.88 an hour and electricity costs 68 cents per hour based on 4.5 kW per hour usage. That compares to traditional methods with labour costs at $15 an hour and diesel at $6.23 per hour on 4.1 litres per hour use.

“Because the vegetation management robot can afford to be all-electric without making the price go through the roof, we’re looking at about 4.5 kW/h,” Pahari said. “And that’s a big figure. We’ve overestimated this. The actual use of electricity is lower.”

Pahari’s comparison assumed technology access costs of $50 per month for tractor Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) correction signals, which breaks down to 28 cents per hour. However, the robot costs $1.14 per hour because it requires access to more services, such as the cloud, to work correctly.

In addition, savings were found in mechanical maintenance at 40 cents per hour compared to the tractor’s $2 per hour. Pahari said a robot motor could run for 20,000 to 50,000 hours (about five and a half years) before requiring maintenance. That lowers overhead costs.

“That’s essentially the lifetime of the robot,” he said. “The gearbox, you might have to change the oil every 1,000 hours or so. But still, the maintenance compared to a standard diesel tractor is a lot less.”

The hourly cost for running the vegetation robot was $4.09 compared to $23.51 for the 40 hp tractor with implements. The initial $20,000 price difference had a 1,029- hour payback period.

“Whether this is worth it would depend on how much you use the equipment per month, per year, or however you chose to do that breakdown,” Pahari said. “What you must answer, in this case, is do you meet the threshold? Do you have the specific needs for automation and in sufficient quantity to justify it?”

Farm size, practices, equipment age and whether adequate labour is available at critical times in production all determine whether robotics fit the operation.

The pandemic further highlighted the impact of immunity outbreaks, labour com- petition in agriculture and increasing costs to retain workers, said Pahari.

“We don’t yet know how to put a number on the missed opportunity costs. For example, the crop loss … if you don’t harvest your crops in time, which is actually a problem in ice wine production. We have a small window of opportunity to harvest.”

He believes robotics and automated techniques are long-term solutions, especially with the pressure to replace outdated production methods and inefficient machinery with those that increase profits per acre, lower input use and pollution without increasing the cost of operation or decreasing profits.

There are barriers to adoption, including the price point that jumps from a $20,000 difference to an $80,000 investment if people aren’t replacing outdated machinery, said Pahari. There also must be a willingness to accept a hybrid style of operation that considers the unique needs of automation, whether that’s row sizing or edge-of-field mobile charging ports.

Intangibles, like the increased business value in the eyes of investors and consumers, are overlooked when weighing the benefits of integrating automation into an operation.

“You’re trying to reduce emissions, not just emissions in the atmosphere. We’re also talking about pollution of the soil,” he said. “All that can be reduced if not completely avoided to a great extent.”

Agriculture is constantly producing more food on less land through increased efficiencies and operational improvements against a decreasing labour pool, aging farmer demographics and fewer pest and weed mitigation options.

Robotics are filling those demands, said Pahari.