Monthly Archives: May 2018

NB-IoT In India: Looking At The Key Facts, Stats & Updates

Hussain Fakhruddin
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Hussain Fakhruddin

Hussain Fakhruddin is the founder/CEO of Teknowledge mobile apps company. He heads a large team of app developers, and has overseen the creation of nearly 600 applications. Apart from app development, his interests include reading, traveling and online blogging.
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NB-IoT in India: Trends and updates

 

India is fast growing into a strong global IoT hub. By the end of 2016, there were ~200 million ‘connected devices‘ in the country – and this count has been estimated to jump to 2.6 billion units in 2020. In terms of revenue, we are looking at an almost 3X increase over the 2016-2020 period ($5.6 billion vs $15 billion). Globally, the overall size of the IoT market will swell to well over $3 trillion by the end of this decade. LPWAN (low power, wide area networks) standards are driving the growth of IoT across the globe in a big way. According to a recent Infoholic Research report, the worldwide LPWAN market will be growing at a CAGR of >93% between 2016 and 2022. We have already highlighted the importance of Semtech Corporation’s LoRa technology in previous posts here and here. Let us now turn our attentions to another competing, and increasingly popular, technology – Narrowband IoT, or NB-IoT.

There are, at present, around 200 million active NB-IoT connections in the world. Come 2021, the number of connections will shoot up to 685 million (a 242.5% spike). The 2017-2022 CAGR of the global NB-IoT market will be ~62% – going up from $16 million (2017) to $181 million (2022). While Europe and North America are, rather expectedly, the early pace-setters in this domain – the Asia-Pacific has emerged as the biggest contributor to the global NB-IoT market – thanks to the proliferation of smart cities, and the large-scale deployments of optimized IoT solutions. The growth of NB-IoT in India over the past few quarters has been well and truly remarkable too. Reliance Jio, in collaboration with Samsung, is planning to deploy a pan-India cellular IoT network (covering 99% of the nation’s population). Last month, Vodafone reported that it is deliberating on the implementation of NB-IoT solutions in India (following its ‘superIoT’ approach). Over here, we will briefly touch upon some interesting facts and stats about the growth of NB-IoT in India:

  1. What exactly is NB-IoT?

    Before getting down to analyzing the technology, it is important to understand the precise nature of narrowband-IoT. Broadly speaking, NB-IoT refers to a new form of LPWAN radio technology, that is typically meant for transferring low data volumes over large networks (NB-IoT powered devices can be used for indoor as well as outdoor use). Alternatively known as LTE-M2, the technology is implemented either through dedicated LTE base stations, or on 200-khZ bands that were not previously in use. NB-IoT was standardized by 3GPP in September 2015 – with the LTE Advanced Pro Release 13 specifying its standards. An optimally functioning NB-IoT setup can deliver a maximum range of 34-35 km (significantly higher than that of LoRa; comparable with GSM), while the downlink data rate varies in the 2 – 170 kbps range. Unlike LoRaWAN and Sigfox, NB-IoT uses licensed LTE frequency spectrums. The highest possible uplink data rate is 250kbps, and the maximum coupling loss is 164 dB (marginally higher than LoRa; similar to Sigfox).

Note: Apart from the ease of bandwidth availability, NB-IoT ensures minimal interferences, excellent battery performance, and general ease of usage. It is, hence, an ideal communication protocol for sending/receiving data over long distances.

  1. Sectors under the NB-IoT focus

    Enterprise applications are increasing in importance in India – and smart automation is playing a key role over here (think: Smart Cities Mission, Digital India). Vodafone, which is actively involved in NB-IoT implementations for business/enterprise cases in Europe, has similar plans for the Indian market in the foreseeable future. The telecom giant is eyeing four industry verticals – education, automotive, medical and energy – as the ones with the biggest growth potentials for IoT. In addition, the consumer IoT sub-domain is growing fast too – thanks to the availability and growing awareness about smart home applications, tracking tools, and smart asset management solutions. The prime point of concern in the Indian IoT market is gradually shifting from ‘connectivity’ to ‘security’ – thereby entering a phase of early maturity. NB-IoT promises to be exciting on two counts – it can help individual end-users, as well as automate enterprise applications to take them to the next level.

Note: Since 5G will have significantly lower latency levels and bring up opportunities for AR/VR tools – it will make IoT connectivity in general, and NB-IoT use cases in particular, stronger.

  1. NB-IoT overcomes bandwidth limitations in India

    For all the developments of LoRa technology in India, the fact remains that there are restrictions on unlicensed IoT bands in the Indian market. NB-IoT does away with this issue, by using licensed frequency bands (the license fees are low). Availability of NB-IoT modules is hardly a factor – since the technology is making a relatively late entry over here, and multiple MNOs (mobile network operators) are already offering such modules. The onus lies on IoT developers to factor in the bandwidth requirements and the limited mobility of narrowband-IoT, while using the technology to create new applications/tools. Competitive pricing is yet another must-have factor for any new technology to be practically viable – and NB-IoT comes up trumps regarding that. The average per-device monthly cost should be around $0.5 (or even slightly lower, depending upon the precise nature of applications). The growth of NB-IoT in India will also be fueled by the network coverage capabilities of the technology.

Note: The value of the Indian digital economy will touch the $1 trillion mark in 2024. It can safely be stated that the country is well on its way towards becoming a ‘digital superpower’.

  1. The developments at MWC 2018

    The Reliance Jio-Samsung partnership is important for the large-scale commercial deployment of NB-IoT in India. At this year’s Mobile World Congress (Feb 26 – Mar 1), several other interesting NB-IoT-related announcements and developments also took place. For starters, France-based Sequans Communication released its first-ever ‘made for NB-IoT’ chip. A new set of 9 radio frequency (RF) chips for LPWANs were showcased by Qorvo. Using Vodafone as the network for its live demo session, Chinese chip vendor company Goodix announced the start of NB-IoT chip sales (the IP will be obtained from CommSolid GmbH). A dual-mode network (LTE-M1/NB-IoT) was presented by Vancouver-based startup Riot Micro. It was also announced at MWC 2018 by China Mobile that chips from 5 companies – ZTE, Huawei, Qualcomm, Mediatek and RDA – have been used to deploy full-fledged NB-IoT networks in as many as 346 cities. According to Qorvo, the global LPWAN market grew by an impressive 20% in 2017 – and by the time 2025 rolls in, it will be the single largest connectivity technology in the globe (with 4 billion+ active IoT devices).

Note: Just as the non-cellular IoT market is being led by LoRa (with Sigfox also having a strong presence), NB-IoT leads the cellular IoT sector.

  1. Successful NB-IoT trial runs in India

    Tata Communications has plans to deploy the largest LoRaWAN network in the world in India. The project, spanning 38 cities, will be completed before the end of 2019. NB-IoT networks are also set to become commercially available on a large-scale in India – with Reliance Jio (and Samsung) and Vodafone both eyeing rollouts in the coming months. Vodafone India announced last month that it had already completed multiple smart city test cases in Pune and Kolkata. At present, more use cases from different business sectors – from retail and automobiles, to manufacturing and healthcare – are being researched. On its part, Reliance has already deployed a fully functional NB-IoT network in Mumbai, and the networks in several other cities are being planned. The total number of Jio subscribers is already well over 158 million, ~9000 new towers are being set up every month, and LTE coverage in India is estimated to reach 99% by 2018 Q4.

Note: In North America and Europe, Deutsche Telekom leads the way in terms of NB-IoT network deployments.

  1. Disruptions with NB-IoT

    The chief objective of the Reliance Jio-Samsung collaboration is the assurance of faster, interruption-free internet across India. Non-IP data delivery will be something that will set apart the NB-IoT movement in India apart – and this innovation will be backed by a steadily growing user-base. For the deployment, all the installed Jio stations will have to be upgraded (the spectrum finalization will also pave the way for 5G, as and when the technology comes along). According to reports, narrowband-IoT can bring about technical disruptions in various industries – like transportation and logistics, smart metering utilities, weather tracking and vehicle tracking, security & surveillance, and predictive maintenance. In a country like India, NB-IoT is likely to pay a prominent role in smart agriculture/precision farming as well – improving yields and efficiency levels, and lowering uncertainties. As already mentioned above, the technology has the power to revolutionize both enterprise and customer IoT systems.

Note: The IoT scaling opportunities in India are unmatched (according to Qualcomm). In 2016, Qualcomm entered into a partnership with Philips, and another collaboration with CISCO (in Jaipur). The market is growing fast.

  1. Help from Finnish NB-IoT technologies?

    In March, Telia became the first Finnish operator to implement NB-IoT technology in its network. In general, Finland is easily one of the global leaders in NB-IoT applications – with Nextfour (in partnership with telecom giant DNA) launching a LTE-M/NB-IoT application in Turku. Not surprisingly, Finnish NB-IoT technologies are being used as a reference point for Indian companies. Late last month, it came to news that a leading telecom service provider in India has expressed interest in the IoT technologies that are being used in Finland – for the optimization and betterment of the Indian IoT sector. Both Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel have plans to penetrate the IoT and home automation market – with the help of powerful and innovative M2M solutions. Given that the domestic home automation market is set to move beyond $54 billion in 2022, there is ample scope for more players to use NB-IoT to make a difference in this sector.

Note: Reduction in costs, efficiency boosts, better reliability and easy deployment options are some of the main advantages of NB-IoT.

  1. Band selection for NB-IoT

    The 865-867 MHz unlicensed spectrum band is used for deploying the LoRaWAN protocol in India. Given the top-notch coverage of NB-IoT, the 900 MHz band (licensed) is generally used by most mobile operators for it (the 700 MHz and 800 MHz bands can be used as well). By 2015, there were already 14 commercial networks operating on the MHz band – where indoor penetration levels are excellent, there is high propagation, and the existing ecosystem is also fairly strong. Interestingly though, 1800 MHz is the frequency band that has the highest percentage of active LTE networks (>76%) in the world. In countries like Australia, Singapore, China and the United Kingdom, the 1800 MHz band is the most popular for LTE networks. The 2.1 G and 2.6 G bands are also used, albeit at a much lower level. Developers need to be aware of the country-specific bandwidth regulations, and abide by the same – while designing with NB-IoT.

Note: NB-IoT cells are typically larger in size than standard MBB cells. The former should ideally be able to accomodate ~100 concurrent connections.

  1. Main features of NB-IoT

    The buzz about IoT applications in general, and NB-IoT technology in particular, is rising in India. A lot of factors are serving as the drivers of this 3GPP-standardized  technology – right from the 600 bps-250 kbps bidirectional transmissions and the ~10 years battery life (using two AA batteries), to the relatively easy maintenance requirements, the SIM-based security system with ciphering and authentication, and the easy plug-and-play usability (no local networks/gateways required). Compared to GPRS, NB-IoT can deliver a much higher (almost 20 dB) coverage. The fact that NB-Iot works only on licensed bands adds an extra layer of security to the technology. The minimum number of connections in a single NB-IoT cell is 50 – and the real-time data tracking is high on accuracy. What’s more, connectivity and modem costs are minimal – and that, in turn, means that the IoT communication costs with NB-IoT can be significantly lower than that associated with LoRa or 3G modules.

Note: Mass deployment of IoT applications can go a long way in improving public health and safety standards. Users would also be able to save a lot of time and energy by switching over to LPWAN technologies.

       10. NB-IoT: A major source of revenue

Investing big on a new communication technology would only make sense if the returns are high enough. NB-IoT is on firm grounds regarding this – with a cumulative revenue of $1.67 billion being projected for the 2016-2021 period. Smart city projects, smart home applications, and automotive and logistics tools are going to be the top-three revenue earners (in that order). Safety & security ($227 million) and smart agriculture ($159 million) are two other sectors that are going to be disrupted by the arrival of NB-IoT, both worldwide and in India. The cost advantage of NB-IoT is also worth a special mention. The average price of a LoRa module and a Sigfox module is $8 and $9 respectively – higher than the average cost of a NB-IoT module ($5). To put things in perspective, a full-featured Cat4 module can cost as much as $30. The tremendous revenue opportunities of NB-IoT, together with the lowly cost figures (only Bluetooth is cheaper) indicate that large-scale deployments can be really profitable for operators.

Note: LPWAN use cases can broadly be classified under 4 different categories – Industry, Appliances, Personal and Public.

       11. Is NB-IoT suitable for everything?

As both Reliance Jio and Vodafone have pointed out, narrowband-IoT can be deployed in many different business sectors – and more and more new use cases are coming into the picture. That said, the technology might not be an ideal fit in certain cases. For example, since cellular networks do not generally have strong power-saving mechanisms, they are not particularly great for applications that involve infrequent transfer of very small amounts of data. Utilization of capabilities is yet another factor – since NB-IoT does not require voice technology, or high data transmission rates, or messaging tools, all of which are present in standard 3G/LTE devices. As a result of this, the effective cost of using devices only for NB-IoT goes up. Also, the operability of NB-IoT can become rather suspect in remote locations (in the absence of base stations nearby). In such scenarios, the battery life gets adversely affected as a result of the extra strain on the device transmitter. The good thing is, operators are doing their best to work around these issues – and make sure that NB-IoT standards have uniform usability.

Note: There are three alternative deployment scenarios for NB-IoT – standalone (with new bandwidth), guard band (with reserved bandwidth) and in-band (with same resource in LTE carrier).

      12. Understanding the developer mindset

In 2015, there were 4.5 million IoT developers in the world. Cut to 2020, and this figure will cross the 10 million mark – with many Indian players joining the community. The burgeoning popularity of NB-IoT has a lot to do with what these developers actually want from their IoT communication systems. According to a M2M Barometer Survey report, ‘2-way communication’ (55%) and ‘low cost’ (43%) are the two most sought-after features in any IoT technology, followed by ‘extended geographic coverage’ (40%) and ‘long battery life’ (34%). Now, NB-IoT satisfies all of these requirements and many more – and that makes it easier for developers to adopt it and deploy it in their LPWAN systems. By the end of 2024, 6 out of every 10 IoT devices will be powered by NB-IoT – emphasizing the importance of the technology in the long-run.

Note: In January, Telstra became the first Australian carrier to deploy NB-IoT in its network. Incidentally, Telstra also provides Cat M1 IoT coverage (started in 2017).

Apart from the endeavors of Reliance Jio and Vodafone, Huawei is also deliberating with leading Indian telecom players for commercial IoT deployment. There are potential interoperability issues between Huawei and Ericsson (which can affect the rollout of NB-IoT globally). However, the successful ‘interoperability tests’ done by Vodafone reduce such concerns somewhat.

Under the ‘Smart Cities Mission’ of the present government, 100 smart cities will be developed in India. In a truly ‘smart city’, narrowband-IoT can be utilized for a lot of purposes – like smart water metering, air-quality monitoring, smart parking, damage prediction, sheep tracking (in farming), and smart waste management. All of these (and much more) are already being done in different countries. With LoRa and NB-IoT both set to become mainstream in India – the country can easily rank among the global LPWAN leaders in the not-too-distant future.

 

 

Farming With Robots: An Overview Of Applications & Use Cases

Hussain Fakhruddin
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Hussain Fakhruddin

Hussain Fakhruddin is the founder/CEO of Teknowledge mobile apps company. He heads a large team of app developers, and has overseen the creation of nearly 600 applications. Apart from app development, his interests include reading, traveling and online blogging.
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Robots in Farming| Smart Agriculture

 

The face of agriculture, as we know it, is changing. Technology is playing a pivotal role in making farming techniques smarter than ever before (which is mighty important, given the spiralling food requirements of the burgeoning global population). Switching over to smart precision farming techniques is enabling crop-growers to significantly increase productivity levels from their lands (i.e., making more with the same resources). The role of robotics, powered by powerful GPS technologies and big data, in agriculture is firmly in focus at present. By 2022, the worldwide agri-robots (or, Agbots) market will go beyond $12.50 million – ~365% more than the corresponding figure in 2016. The CAGR for the 2017-2022 period will be just a touch under 21%.

Thanks to the rapid evolutions in farmtech over the last half a decade or so, agricultural robots are no longer about only the John Deere smart tractors and agricultural drones/UAVs. North America and Europe lead the way in precision farming and usage of farming robots, with Asia-Pacific (primarily, China and India) also growing at a fast clip. The growing awareness about IoT (internet of things) in general, and smart farming techniques in particular, is helping end users optimally use agricultural robots – for a myriad of purposes, speeding up processes, making things efficient, and ruling out chances of manual errors. According to a recent Tractica report, annual shipments of such robots will touch the 594000 units mark by the end of 2024 (the annual shipment in 2016 was 33000 units). In what follows, we will focus on some important functions and use cases of robots in farming:

  1. Types of farming robots

    As the implementation of data-backed, tech-based agriculture is rising, more and more types of agbots are coming into the picture. Robots with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and built-in analytics systems are being used for various on-field tasks – right from crop and cattle management, to dairy management, soil monitoring, and overall farm yield optimization. The watchword here is sustainable expansion of agricultural produce, with the help of technology. Apart from agricultural drones and GPS-powered smart tractors, milking robots, unmanned spraying helicopters and materials management systems are steadily growing in popularity. Water management and irrigation is yet another domain where agbots are delivering considerable benefits. There are ‘smart harvesting robots’ as well, as well as ‘intelligent’ tools for farm inventory management. In a nutshell, robots are giving shape to the concept of fully ‘digital farms’. Interestingly, agbots have also provided a much-needed thrust to indoor farming practices.

Note: Clearpath Robotics, John Deere, AGCO and Lely are some of the biggest players in the worldwide farming robots industry.

  1. Micro-level crop monitoring

    In the United States, the average size of agricultural farms is 444 acres (this figure has remained relatively stable over the last couple of decades). Now, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to manually monitor large fields. Lack of actionable data and insights, in turn, increase the uncertainty factor associated with farming – and to mitigate such risks, agbots (ground-level robots) and drones can play a very important role. These farm robots typically make use of powerful sensors and geomapping technologies to bring holistic, real-time crop information to end-users (i.e., the crop growers). There are certain agbots, like BoniRob, which can reach very close to the ground crops – in order to deliver granular-level crop information. Several companies have also started offering farming hardware and software analytics tools as a package.

Note: Broadly speaking, agricultural robotics system have 5 key components – the cloud network, the satellite system, the actual farm robot, the smartphone/tablet, and the logistic unit.

  1. Micro-spraying and weeding

    In a 2016 report, it was estimated that QUT’s Agbot II had the capacity of pulling up the annual savings of Australian farmers to $1.3 billion. Micro-spraying and weeding robots come as a welcome alternative to spreading pesticides on fields manually – which: a) is unduly time-consuming, b) leads to wastage/overuse of chemicals, and c) might have adverse effects on the environment. Agbots used for weeding are powered with advanced computer vision – for identifying the weed-affected areas correctly, and spraying the required amounts of pesticide on those areas. This, understandably, reduces the overall use of herbicides – helping farmers cut down on unnecessary expenses. Robots that spot and uproot weeds (instead of applying chemicals on them) can also be used. On average, autonomous weeding techniques with agbots can kill ~90% of pests, saving 75% of pesticide usage simultaneously.

Note: Laser technology can also be used by certain agri robots to kill weeds. Accurate tactile sensing capabilities is a must-have in any good weeding/micro-spraying robot.

  1. The role of drones and sensors

    By January 2017, the value of the global agri-drone market had swelled to $32.5 million (as per a PwC report). Land mapping, on-field pest detection and general crop-inspection are some important purposes for which drones are being extensively used. In fact, we are probably not far away from a time when agri-drones would be able to communicate with each other and ‘work as a team’ (say, for in-depth crop treatment, irrigation management, and weeding). In the smart agriculture ecosystem, sensors also play a crucial role . For instance, soil moisture sensors can constantly track the condition of the soil (moisture levels, humidity, etc.), send the data to the cloud network, and generate irrigation notifications for the farmers. As a result, chances of water wastage are done away with. In New Zealand, SmartN is already being used to track the places where cows have urinated – since such areas do not need any further fertilizer or chemicals. Without properly functioning on-field drones and sensors, the utility of agricultural robots would have been very limited.

Note: The agricultural drone market will be worth $2.9 billion by the end of 2020 – nearly 5X more than the corresponding figure in 2015.

  1. More efficient picking, sorting and harvesting

    The European Union-funded cROPS project (Clever Robots For Crops) have shown the way for this. Dedicated applications for picking and sorting ‘soft fruits’ are being tested and deployed – and these applications typically have the degree of manual dexterity required for the job (crops like wheat and corn can be easily harvested by automated combine harvesters). Octinion, a leading research company, released a prototype of its strawberry-picking robot a few months back. The robot can sort and pick 70% of all ripe strawberries (Shibiya Seiki – a Japanese company – showcased a similar agbot in 2013). Autonomous apple-picking robots, armed with vacuum removal mechanics and computer vision (so that the tree itself, or the fruit, is not damaged in any way) are coming into the picture – and they are expected to become fairly mainstream in the next couple of years or so. The vision systems in the agbots enable the latter to gauge the ripeness of the fruits, detect the presence of dust on them, and manage temperature/wind conditions. Crop damage at the time of harvest is a big issue in traditional agriculture – and farming robotics is designed to eliminate that concern.

Note: Abundant Robotics (California, USA) and FF Robotics (Israel) are both conducting trial runs of their apple picker robots. The built-in AI sensors can also let farmers know of the correct harvesting time/window for their crops.

  1. Key drivers of farming with robots

    Come 2024, we will be looking at annual revenues in excess of $74 billion from the global agricultural robots market. The exponentially rising global population is, arguably, the single biggest factor behind the rapid developments in precision farming with robots – since there are more mouths to feed, total land resources are limited, and yields have to be maximized. Using agbots and smart farming techniques are also likely to generate significant economies of scale in larger farms. The fact that wage bills make up nearly 41% of the total farming expenses is also motivating farm-owners to replace a section of the labor with agbots. Unavailability of sufficient manpower is yet another factor – with the youth mostly uninterested in getting involved in traditional farming and getting their hands dirty (literally) in the process. The growing food scarcity levels, the constant climatic changes and farmland transfers, and the existing bottlenecks of manual farming (along with the uncertainties and low yields) are also making people switch over to agbots as viable (and much more efficient) alternatives. The impact of IoT in agriculture is growing all the time, and robotic farming offers manifold advantages.

Note: Not all is plain sailing for agricultural robots yet though. The technology itself is rather fragmented, there is still a widespread lack of awareness among farmers, there are infrastructural issues, and the benefits/value propositions of robots in farming might not be immediately apparent. As farmtech standards evolve further, these issues will gradually get resolved.

  1. Planting and seeding with agbots

    In India, nearly 16% of all fruits and vegetable produce was lost in 2016-2017. The waste percentage of cereals was also alarmingly high. Across the world, a lot of wastage occurs at the time of seeding – simply because farmers follow the outdated method of spraying seeds from a moving tractor (with a so-called ‘broadcast spreader’). Farm robots with cutting-edge geomapping functionality can be used as an alternative – to prevent seeds from being wasted. These agbots are designed in the form of ‘robotic seeding attachments’ (to be attached to tractors) – and they can accurately determine all relevant soil features, so that the right seeds are dispersed at the right places in the right time. Agbots can also power nursery automation – ensuring that all greenhouse activities, like potting, seeding and warehousing, are optimized. Precision seeding, in a way, is all about maximizing the chances of growth of food plants from seeds.

Note: With urbanization happening globally at a rapid clip, agbots are helping in the creation, management and maintenance of indoor farms (in urban environments). In Hong Kong, such a farm robotic system can bring down water usage by as much as 95%, while the growth of plants also gets considerably accelerated.

  1. Rise and rise of fully unmanned technology with robots

    Smart tractors have been in existence for a long time – but certain factors are still holding the technology back. Primary among them are the relatively high price tags of sensors (for small farmers, this is a huge factor), a feeling of distrust stemming from lack of knowledge, and regulatory issues. Going forward though, agricultural robots certainly has the potential of ushering in fully unmanned farm technologies. The total number of smart tractor shipments (with GPS guidance, or some other form of steering technology) is expected to be >700K in 2028 – and by 2038, more than 40000 Level 5 tractors will be sold. Agricultural robots will gradually start to work in fleets (rather than as standalone units) – and most of them will have at least some degree of functional autonomy. According to experts, 2024 will be ‘trigger year’ for agbots – following which shipments will start to accelerate in a big way. The cost of farm automation suites will also start to fall gradually, further fueling adoption levels. ‘Intelligent agribots’ are not going to totally replace humans on agricultural fields – but they will be the face of autonomous precision farming in the foreseeable future.

Note: Agribotix, a noted agricultural intelligence company, reported in a case study that it had managed to reduce crop losses by 13%, on a 110-acre land.

  1. Robotics for milking

    By 2017 Q3, more than 34000 robotic milking systems (or, RMS) were in active use on farms across the globe. Instead of having to deal with risk of infections and low volume of milk production – collaborative agbots can be used to sprinkle ‘safe’ disinfectants on the animals’ udders, prior to the milking process. What’s more – these robotic solutions also ‘prepare’ the animals for milking – which ensures that the volume and quality of milk obtained is optimal. As a rule of thumb, the frequency of milking has to steadily decrease over the lactation cycle. The high price of milking robots (~$175000 for a system that can milk 50-70 cows) is a concern – but over time, it can be reasonably expected that the cost will come down. With proper management and regulated operations (training the workforce will also be crucial), cow-milking robots can yield definite advantages – which may not be apparent at first.

Note: It has been found that, in the first three days of the robotic milking process, 3 out of every 4 cows voluntarily go to these robots.

    10. Mowing, Pruning and Thinning

What should be the ideal spacing between seeds on a field – so that the chances of healthy crop growth would be optimal? Traditionally, experience and guesswork were the only tools to answer this question. The scenario has now changed though, with specialized agbots having the capability of gauging the ‘correct’ density of plants, for proper growth (the robots typically reduce the density). This is known as ‘thinning’ – and even with robots, the process can take quite a bit of time. Agri-robots are also being used to mow or cut certain portions of plants, to foster their healthy growth (this is known as ‘pruning’). For both ‘thinning’ and ‘pruning’ crops in the best possible manner, agbots make use of high-level computer vision technology. Automated pruning has already been done in the wine industry (vineyard robot Wall-Ye) – and a robot for blueberry pruning has also been developed.

Note: Last year, LettuceBot – created by Blue River Technologies – bagged an ‘outstanding product innovation in agriculture’ award.

     11. Technical refinements are required

The benefits of switching over to smart agriculture and robotic farming are pretty much well-documented. Even so, issues remain – primarily from a technical perspective – in the path of the growth of agritech in general, and agbots in particular. For starters, the lack of regulatory uniformity is a big problem for both the OEMs as well as the final users. There are also scopes for improving the accuracy of robot positions (which, in turn, will make weeding, irrigation, crop monitoring, and other activities more effective). Question marks still remain over the safety factor of farm robots, for humans as well as for the environment. In addition, it is also uncertain as to who would shoulder the responsibilities in case an unforeseen accident does occur. For accurate analysis (for example, determining the ripeness of fruits before picking), robots need to factor in external things like temperature fluctuations and light variations. The investments required for deploying agbot systems are large – and unless the technology is properly refined – they won’t be able to deliver good value for money. There’s still a long way to go.

Note: Precision irrigation is rapidly growing popular across the globe. It offers two important advantages over traditional irrigation methods – firstly, areas that were previously inaccessible can now be reached, and secondly, plants can be targeted separately.

     12. Sheep herding with robots

Shepherding cattle herds is one of the oldest, and also one of the trickiest, tasks associated with cattle farming. Agricultural robots, in the form of drones, can automate this process as well. Already, UAVs are being used in Ireland (copters) and New Zealand to manage sheep herds. These drones can, of course, be remotely operated – and their constant tracking operations make sure that not a single animal strays away from the herd. Another interesting point is that the sheep followed the drones out of their own free will. The flipside to this is the short battery life of these cattle drones (~20-25 minutes) and their steep price (the Q500 drones are available at $1299). In Australia, many ranchers use helicopters for cattle herding. Drones can be an excellent, and a much cheaper, alternative for them.

Note: The practice of fertilizer application on agricultural fields has also been revolutionized, thanks to the advent of farm robots. The robotics systems of Rowbot, for instance, ensure effective utilization of nitrogen fertilizer.

Present-day farming is – or at least should be – all about the ‘sustainability of agriculture’. Agricultural robots, for all their advantages and powerful functionalities, are still at a nascent stage – and there are still several rough edges. As these issues get resolved, robots in farming would start to increase annual yields, lower crop/food prices, ensure better food accessibility levels, and make farming standards more efficient than ever before.

Agriculture is increasingly becoming tech-based – and the impact of IoT on farming has been profound. With the need for improving agricultural productivity levels increasing everyday, it can safely be assumed that agbots will become more mainstream in the coming years. It also has to be kept in mind that these robots are not, and will never be, meant for working in isolation. A certain level of human interaction (for management, operation, performance tracking, etc.), will always be required.

Automated farming is definitely the future. Agri-robots will be right at the face of it in the next decade.