The Salt
10:47 am
Wed May 16, 2012

From Science Fiction To Fact, Robots Are Coming To A Farm Near You

Originally published on Wed January 29, 2014 2:59 pm

In the Star Wars movies, moisture farmers on dry planets like Tattoine use droids to help with the repetitive, back-breaking labor, but that's in a galaxy far, far away. There's no doubt that robots are cool, but are robots on farms far off in our future?

Actually, the future is already here, with highly advanced milking machines on some dairy farms and a fully automated robot planting tractor set to hit the market this fall.

To be sure, today's farmers already rely on advanced technology, like GPS systems to help with planting and automatic milkers. That makes the jump to robotics pretty easy, says Jeremy Brown, president of Jaybridge Robotics. His Massachusetts-based company makes software that helps turn regular machinery into robotic machinery for commercial use.

"Robotics and autonomy become appropriate where you have a situation which is dull, which is dirty or which is dangerous," Brown says.

Sounds like farming. Jaybridge and tractor manufacturer Kinze have developed a mass-market robotic planting system. It will be in limited release this fall.

A few dairy farmers are already on the cutting edge. They face two or three milkings a day and maintain hundreds of cows, just to stay in the black. Many dairies have turned to some form of automatic milking for years to help out.

But some dairies are trying out new milking technology. It goes beyond just a little attachment to a cow's udder that squeezes the milk out. This takes it a step further, using a robotic arm to prepare and clean the udders, attach the milking equipment, and monitor the cow's health. (Check out the cool video here)

Robot technologies like these can buy farmers a little more time off.

"Just this past Christmas we had a customer of ours that had started up two of our (robotic milkers) with their herd," says Mark Futcher, product manager for an automatic milking machine made by DeLaval. "That Christmas morning was the first time that gentleman had ever been witness to his children finding their Christmas stockings."

Robots are creeping into everyday life, but could we see robots replacing farmers anytime soon?

Not likely. Today's modern farmer is a CEO — making decisions about when to buy and sell and managing an ever-changing workforce. For now, robots are there to help.

"There's very much a human element in all of the business decisions and all of the equipment selection and maintenance and fleet decisions," Brown says. "I don't think you're going to eliminate the farmer with automation."

Want to learn more about farming in the future? Check out Harvest Public Media's Farmer of the Future series running this week. There are stories on the changing demographics of midwestern farm towns, the blurring lines of what defines a "corporate" farmer, and more.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.