The Financial Express

Agricultural robots may herald a new era to the vision of Digital Bangladesh

| Updated: November 08, 2021 21:27:22

Retro fitted equipment in drilling operation Retro fitted equipment in drilling operation

In the last five decades, the thriving economy of Bangladesh from "Basket Case" to "Rising Economic Star" is a role model throughout the world. Bangladesh is the 41st largest and fastest growing economy having great booming potentiality. The long-run visionary outlook of the government of Bangladesh termed as "Digital Bangladesh" will facilitate economic growth. The overall objective of this forward-looking vision is to use new technologies to build world class skills. The specific objectives of the National Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Policy (2018) are believed to facilitate the country to become a high income and knowledge-based country by 2041.

One of the priorities of "Digital Bangladesh" is the agricultural sector. Mechanisation is being emphasised to increase labour productivity, increase profits, and ensure food security. Unfortunately, conventional agricultural mechanisation still demands a substantial amount of labour and it leads to large farms, large fields, and mono-cropping. In Bangladesh creating the large fields needed for efficient mechanisation would require remaking the rural landscape. Because of advances in farm robot technology, Bangladesh has the opportunity to move directly to an agricultural sector dominated by profitable small and medium size robotic farms.

Researchers have defined crop robots as: mobile mechatronic devices that accomplish crop production tasks (e.g., soil preparation, seeding, transplanting, weeding, pest control and harvesting) with autonomy in operations using predetermined field paths and itinerary with relatively little decision-making capacity, under human supervision, but without direct human labour. Similar technology exists for greenhouses, livestock and fisheries, but the focus here is on crop production.

Worldwide the discussion of farm robotics usually starts with the fact that agricultural labour is difficult to hire almost everywhere and wage rates are rising. This is affecting Bangladesh due to the emergence of non-farm employment opportunities. Workers are shifting towards non-farm sectors because of higher wages and better working conditions. In peak planting and harvesting time arable farming faces labour scarcity.

As use of agricultural robots spreads, the technology will need be adapted to the rural landscapes and economics of farming locally. Crop robots in Australia and North America may be quite large. The crop robots used in Bangladesh will probably be quite small machines that complement the farmer's capabilities. For example, at the beginning of the season, the farmer might work with the robot to transplant rice, so that he or she can focus on assuring a good supply of health transplants, paddy water management and other farm tasks. At harvest time, robots might handle cutting the rice, gathering into bundles and transporting them to the threshing site, while the farmer manages the post-harvest handling and marketing. Use of robots would allow Bangladeshi farmers to produce vegetables and other specialised crops that require intensive management.

In Europe, North America and Australia crop robots are on the verge of technical and economic feasibility. For instance, in 2020 approximately 150 weeding robots were used in France for sugar beet and vegetable production. Retrofit kits are being sold in North America for converting conventional tractors into crop robots. In Australia a crop robot code of practice has been created to help farmers manage this increasingly common technology safely. In the UK, the Hands Free Hectare (HFH) & Hands Free Farm (HFF) at Harper Adams University retrofitted conventional 38 hp tractors for drilling, fertiliser application and spraying, and a combine for harvesting.

In the longer run, the biggest impact of crop robots may not be on farm labour, but rather on the agricultural environment. Instead of broadcasting farm chemicals, mechanical weeding and targeted pesticide application by robots could reduce use of farm chemicals by over 90 per cent. Instead of large machines compacting the soil, small robots could produce higher yields with a minimum of soil disturbance. Many of the early crop robots are powered by fossil fuels, but research shows that robots can be more easily adapted to electricity supply by solar and wind installation, or to other renewable sources of energy than large conventional equipment. Small robots can work efficiently in small, irregularly shaped fields enhancing the biodiversity benefits of field borders, hedgerows and in-field trees. Crop robots would not require merging fields and eliminating field borders to create the kind of large fields needed for conventional mechanisation. In Bangladesh, the rural landscape with robotic agriculture would look very much as it does now, but with more prosperous farmers.

Bangladesh is already food surplus, especially in rice production, but that needs to transition from unprofitable subsistence to profitable commercial farming with the potential of creating jobs for the young, ensuring food and nutrition security, and reducing the environmental footprint of agriculture. Crop robots could be the game changing technology to facilitate the Fourth Agricultural Revolution usually termed as Agriculture 4.0, which will bring a paradigm shift through attracting youths and entrepreneurs, and reducing rural-urban migration as well as contributing to sustainability.

To bridge the gap between the government's ongoing agricultural mechanisation initiatives and adoption of crop robots, retrofitting conventional equipment may be the best solution. Retrofitting reduces costs by building on the engineering and ingenuity already embodied in mechanised crop equipment. It also can make moving from field-to-field easier because retrofitted equipment still can be operated manually on public roads. Several companies in the UK and North America are developing kits to retrofit conventional equipment.

Promoting rural entrepreneurship and enhancing rural community resilience will be another significant contribution of this mechatronic technology. Released from labour constraints, farmers could produce a wide range of fruits, vegetables, herbs, medicinal plants and other crops that would not be feasible with human labour. The concept of "service model" is familiar among robotic entrepreneurs.  The vision is of an "Uber" type service model which would allow farmers to book slots using their mobile phone and avoid investing in robot hardware and software. 

Next steps in realising the dream of Digital Bangladesh for agriculture include:

n Encouraging farm equipment retailers to work with the multi-national agricultural machine companies to test commercial crop robots and retrofit technology in Bangladesh.

n Developing a homegrown crop robot engineering and management capacity at universities, research institutions and companies to adapt worldwide technology to the specific conditions of Bangladesh. 

n Exploring entrepreneurial pathways that help rural people build on the opportunities unleashed by crop robotics. This would include business models for crop robot hiring services, farms producing specialized crop products, and export oriented companies to sell crop robot technology adapted for Bangladesh to other countries with similar crops and conditions.

n Creating a favourable regulatory environment for crop robots in Bangladesh based on code of practice initiatives in Australia and the United Kingdom.

A. K. M. Abdullah Al-Amin is Elizabeth Creak Fellow at Harper Adams University, UK and Assistant Professor at Bangladesh Agricultural University, Mymensingh, Bangladesh. Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer holds the Elizabeth Creak Chair in Agri-Tech Applied Economics at Harper Adams University, UK and he is also the President of the International Society of Precision Agriculture (ISPA) and co-editor of the Precision Agriculture journal.

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