In one interview from 2014 Naio engineers noted that “the purchase of a robot, which costs at least 250 Euros per month, is profitable over a hectare of surface.” But Oz can also carry a payload, work at any hour of the night, and work autonomously once it’s programmed for a task, like weeding a few acres of densely planted vegetables. Oz knows exactly which plants are Swiss chard and which are Green Globe turnips. Oz knows what the weather is and will be. It’s tied into the local weather station and connected to all the other devices and platforms being used on the farm, from Salesforce to Granular, from smart irrigation pumps and soil sensors. As the sell sheet proudly declares, “Oz works perfectly alone but you can also guide it to your needs.”
From vineyards to walnut groves, and from sugar cane to sugar beet, the buyers of Naio bots have been diverse. One buyer sought to “tropicalize” the robot with a test in Indian sugar cane plantations.
So, here are some predictions of what we will see in farm robots in the next 5–10 years.
- Small farm robots will steal increasing market share from traditional farm machine makers like John Deere and Caterpillar. Small farm robots will also blow open wide a whole new market for farms that didn’t exist or could never have made use of a large tractor or combine. Naiotech’s smallest model, the Little Oz is available for as little as $300 per month, with rent to own financing. It’s being promoted especially to ag colleges and farm vocation schools in Europe for classes to buy, use, and give feedback on. Companies like AGCO, CLAAS, CNH Industrial, John Deere, and Kubota, which dominate the global tractor market are eyeing their play in this space, with a potentially bifurcated food system, which still includes huge industrial farms and a growing number of diverse smaller farms. But couldn’t the small farm bots still do it better?
- Helping farms collect data and make sense of it will be an increasing role of small farm robots. These will not just be dull beasts of burden. They will remind the farmer when to shut off irrigation pumps, sound the alarm on early disease signs and collect phytochemical information to tell the farmer when to fertilize or harvest. As Tom Tomich, the head of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, notes, we’re moving from a dearth of farm data to a flood of farm data. Just as devices like Nest or Roomba are helping tie the various components of a smart home together, the small farm robot will be the mobile brain of the smart farm.
- A farm bot for every garden. With multi-colored Ball Jars and an expanded veggie patch at the White House, edible landscaping is already trending. Add small farm robots to the mix and watch out world! Consider the devoted home gardener, like me. Would I consider paying $300 per month for a companion farm bot who would weed the beds that I can’t seem to get to? How about $150 per month? It could prepare the soil before I scatter a fall lettuce mix. It could watch my chickens and tell me (or better yet, my Racchio smart irrigation module) when I need to water. It could probably also mow my lawn. All of the sudden, it seems like a great investment. And the avid home gardener is a strong growing market, in urban, suburban and rural areas alike.
- A human-scale vertical farm unit is sorta like a farm machine that you can walk into. Advances in relatively small scale indoor agriculture, a la Local Roots Farms and Freight Farms, are not so different in function than a small farm robot. They are not mobile. But they can provide a huge machine-learning boost to an individual, small scale food grower. Platforms like Square Roots the vertical farming incubator recently launched in Brooklyn allow food entrepreneurs an entry level piece of hardware that can turn them into a food grower overnight. Think of it like Iron Man’s bionic suit, but for a Millennial farmer.
- These machines will move beyond farms to help with ecological restoration, preserve enforcement and conservation stewardship. Machine tricking that it’s cow. They might even be important parts of the collective consciousness of a rural community, with one robot allerting whole groups of ranchers, farmers or fishers, when a crop is coming into season or pests are on the way. It’s not hard to imagine one of these robots rolling along a farm town’s Main Street.