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"Farming is finally ready for robots"

While vertical farming companies have received a large share of venture capital dollars, there are many other ag-ech startups emerging in the race to automate agriculture. Some of the ag-tech sub-sectors where the most potential for growth in the next five years can be seen include tiller, weeding, and planting robots; sensor-fitted drones used to assess crops and plan fertilizer schedules; greenhouse and nursery automation technology; computer vision systems to identify crop health, weeds, nitrogen, and water levels in plants and soil; crop transport, sorting, and packing robots; and AI software for predictive yield planning.

Several greenhouse and nursery robots aim to improve handling, climate control, and other tasks in plant-growing operations. Harvest Automation’s small autonomous robots can recognize, pick up, and move plants around a nursery. Other greenhouse automation companies to watch include iUNU, which offers a computer vision system for greenhouses, and Iron Ox, which has built large robot-driven greenhouses to grow vegetables.

Some of the sub-sectors that are a bit further out include picking and planting robots, as well as fertilizer and watering drones. A few startups are building tactile robotic hands that could be used to pick delicate fruit such as strawberries or tomatoes. Yet the picked fruit must be placed on autonomous vehicles that can navigate uneven terrain and paired with packing robots that place the fruit carefully to avoid bruising, so challenges remain. Meanwhile, drones exist today that can drop fertilizer or water on fields, but their use is strictly regulated and their range and battery capacity is limited by payload capabilities. In about 10 years, we could begin to see drones that use cameras, computer vision, and AI to assess plant health and then automatically apply the right amount and type of fertilizer based on the plants’ size and chemical composition.

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