Crop protection, chemicals and robotics at first appear totally unrelated, yet IDTechEx Research finds that steady improvements in agricultural robotics will, slowly but surely, fundamentally alter the crop protection chemicals business.
Indeed, crop protection chemical suppliers will no longer be able to ignore developments in the world of agricultural robotics. This is because their rise will change the amount and types of chemicals used, and will force suppliers to seriously consider re-inventing themselves as providers of crop protection, whatever its form, and not just narrow chemical suppliers.
This report provides detailed technology roadmaps, technology- and territory-segmented ten-year market forecasts, and comprehensive interview-based company profiles.
Agricultural robotics will shape the future
Agrochemicals business is already experiencing major changes. Some are of a short-term, cyclical and/or typical nature. For example, the global slowdown in agriculture induced by falling field crop prices has meant declining revenues for nearly all suppliers. Increased production of generic off-patent chemicals, particularly in China, has meant long-term downward price pressures. Intensified price competition and declining market sizes have, unsurprisingly, meant industry consolidation (e.g., ChemChina/Syngenta, DuPont/Dow Chemical, and potentially Bayer/Monsanto).
In contrast, some of the changes are of a more fundamental and long-term nature, and the steady rise of agriculture robotics is certainly one such change. Their rise means a drastic acceleration and amplification of a change that is already under way: precision farming. Here, farm data maps together with GPS-enabled equipment have enabled variable-rate farming technology, allowing farmers to vary the rate of input application based on the needs of specific sites/patches as opposed to the entire farm.
The endgame: ultra-precision agriculture
Better vision technology, greater access to data, and enhanced artificial intelligence will enable agricultural robotics to push this trend towards its ultimate endgame: ultra-precision agriculture where farms will be managed on an individual plant basis. Here, agricultural robotics will cater to the needs of individual plants according to their specific needs, and will seek and destroy individual weeds.
This is already happening. Tractor-pulled robotic implements are increasingly able to rapidly identify weeds from crops and to take precise action to eliminate them (e.g., precision spray herbicides). These machines will become increasingly ruggedized to operate in agricultural environments and will become increasingly intelligent to identify an ever greater variety of crops and weeds.
Currently, most are used in organic farming or lettuce thinning, and employ basic template-matching algorithms. In the near future however, deep learning techniques will be used as increased access to millions of crop/weed images means increased fodder for training more complex algorithms. This, in turn, means robots that can take on an increasingly wider spectrum of tasks in agriculture.
Next, agricultural robots will evolve towards being unmanned and autonomous farm vehicles. This will become possible thanks to accelerated commoditization of autonomous navigation technology, reducing regulatory barriers, increasing farmer familiarity with autonomous vehicles. This too is already happening as evidenced by numerous mobile agricultural robots that are in prototyping or early commercial trial stage.
Evolution of crop protection methods over time towards its endgame of ultra-precision agriculture. Source: IDTechEx together with images from Yamaha, DJI, Blue River Technologies, Gardford Machinery, Deepfield Robotics (a Bosch start-up), Naio Technologies, SwarmFarm Robotics, EcoRobotix
Changing business models
Agricultural robots will transform the business of crop protection chemicals. The advent of ultra-precision farming means an optimized use of chemicals, reducing overall consumption. It will also drive a change in product line-ups from a few blockbuster non-selective herbicides towards many niche selective ones. It will transform volume commodity suppliers into speciality chemicals operations.
Ultra-precision agriculture will also put at risk the hitherto successful business model of bundling non-selective herbicides with genetically-engineered herbicide-tolerant (GE-HT) seeds. This is because crop protection chemicals will be applied only on precise individual locations and not across the entire land. This way broadcast spraying of non-selective herbicides risks becoming obsolete.
Agricultural robots can also bring about a change in the business model of crop protection chemical suppliers. This is because a greater part of the overall value of protecting crops will shift towards robotics. Consequently, chemical suppliers will have to seriously consider re-inventing themselves as providers of crop protection, whatever its form, and not just narrow chemical suppliers.
It will not happen overnight
These sea changes will not happen overnight. Farmer conservatism will inevitably turn these potentially revolutionary technologies into evolutionary, incremental ones.
Currently, most robotic farm equipment is not yet completely reliable therefore they are being commercialized as a service run by skilled operators and priced in $/acre or $/Kg. Their economics are not yet proven in the field, and doing so will inevitably take time because the experimental clock is limited by growing seasons. Outright bans on chemicals remain unlikely anytime soon despite the rising pressure, not least because both farmers and suppliers lobby against them. Farmers still do not trust the robots and are by no means yet desperate enough to pay the current price premium.
This is however no reason for complacency. Indeed, several major chemical companies have already made strategic investments in agricultural robotics as a way to learn this business and to potentially secure technology access. The interest in agricultural robotics will inevitably only grow further.