Robots and drones have already started to quietly transform many aspects of agriculture. And now a new report is predicting the agricultural robotics industry, now serving a $3 billion market, will grow to $10 billion by 2022.

The report, by IDTechEx Research in Britain, is called Agricultural Robots and Drones 2016-2026: Technologies, Markets, and Players. It analyses how robotic market and technology developments will change agriculture, enabling ultra-precision farming and helping address key global challenges.

It describes how robotic technology will enter into different aspects of agriculture, how it will change the way farming is done and transform its value chain, how it becomes the future of agrochemicals business and modifies the way we design agricultural machinery.

The report provides 10-year market forecasts for at least 14 categories of agricultural robots and drones and forecasts how they will evolve.

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Dairy farms: Thousands of robotic milking parlours have been installed worldwide, creating a $1.9 billion industry that is projected to grow to $8.5 billion by 2026. Mobile robots are also already penetrating dairy farms, helping automate tasks such as feed pushing or manure cleaning.

Autonomous tractors: Tractor guidance and autosteer technologies are also going mainstream thanks to improvements and cost reductions in GPS technology. More than 300,000 tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold in 2016, rising to more than 660,000 units per year by 2026.

Unmanned autonomous tractors have also been technologically demonstrated with large-scale market introduction largely delayed not by technical issues but by regulation, high sensor costs and the lack of farmers' trust. This will all change by 2022 and sales of unmanned tractors will reach $200 million by 2026.

ROBOT REVOLUTION: More than 300,000 tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold this year, more than doubling to 660,000 units over the next 10 years. Photo / Supplied
ROBOT REVOLUTION: More than 300,000 tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold this year, more than doubling to 660,000 units over the next 10 years. Photo / Supplied

Agricultural drones:

Unmanned remote-controlled helicopters have been spraying rice fields in Japan since early 1990s. Autonomous drones have also been providing detailed aerial maps of farms, enabling farmers to take data-driven, site-specific action.

This development will soon enter its boom years as regulatory barriers lower and the precision farming ecosystems come together. Drone hardware will become commoditised and value will shift largely to data acquisition and analytics providers. Agriculture will be a major market for drones, reaching $485 million in 2026.

JOB MADE EASY: Robotic copters spray insecticide in Shijiazhuang, China. Photo / supplied
JOB MADE EASY: Robotic copters spray insecticide in Shijiazhuang, China. Photo / supplied

Robotic weeding implements:

Vision-enabled robotic implements have been in commercial use for some years in organic farming. These implements follow the crop rows, identify the weeds, and aid with mechanical hoeing.

The next generation of these advanced robotic implements is also in its early phase of commercial deployment. It will train its algorithms using deep learning techniques. This will become a $380 million market by 2026.

Unmanned autonomous robotic weeders and data scouts: Vision-enabled and intelligence robots are increasingly reaching navigational autonomy. These small, slow and light robots will be autonomously roaming the farms, analysing plants and taking specific actions such as eliminating weeds.

Already, numerous companies and groups have developed a variety of weeding robots. While most products are in prototype or semi-commercial trail phase, the first notable sales have also taken place aimed at small multi-crop vegetable farmers. This will become $300 million market by 2026.

Fresh fruit harvesting: Despite non-fresh fruit harvesting being largely mechanised, fresh fruit picking has remained mostly out of the reach of machines or robots. Progress here has been hampered by the stringent technical requirements together with the lack of CAD models and the fragmented nature of the market putting off investment.

This is now beginning to change, albeit slowly. A limited number of fresh strawberry harvesters are already being commercially trialled, while fresh apple and citrus harvesters have also reached the level of late stage prototyping. Market adoption will start from 2021 onwards, reaching $230 million by 2026.