Robots replace labour

July 18, 2013

When we visited a robotic milking shed in Scotland more than 10 years ago, the farmer said he’d wished he’d automated years earlier.

He enjoyed not having to get up early every day and also not having to worry about labour.

He said the robot worked consistently day and night, it didn’t want time off, it didn’t argue with its girl or boy friend, it didn’t get hangovers  or create any of the other hassles that even the best of employers face with the best of their staff at some time.

The difficulty in recruiting. retaining and managing staff is one of the factors driving interest in robots in other areas of primary production:

On a windy morning in California’s Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, metal contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds.

The engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.

The thinner is part of a new generation of machines that target the last frontier of agricultural mechanization – fruits and vegetables destined for the fresh market, not processing, which have thus far resisted mechanization because they’re sensitive to bruising.

Researchers are now designing robots for these most delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies. Most ag robots won’t be commercially available for at least a few years.

In this region known as America’s Salad Bowl, where for a century fruits and vegetables have been planted, thinned and harvested by an army of migrant workers, the machines could prove revolutionary.

Farmers say farm robots could provide relief from recent labor shortages, lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, even reduce costs, increase quality and yield a more consistent product. . .

A lot of farm work, like thinning lettuces, is essential but work.

Fewer hassles, better quality and improved consistency are compelling reasons for replacing staff with robots.

That could accelerate rural depopulation but staff in these sorts of jobs tend to be transient so the impact on rural communities might not be significant.


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