For all the hype about driverless cars, agriculture is the sector where autonomous mobility will first make its mark, fresh research suggests.
A robotic revolution quietly transforming the agriculture industry is set to create a sizeable market for investors and manufacturers of the technology, according to IDTechEx.
At the heart of this leap is the rise of autonomous vehicles, which the research firm argues are likely to be making faster progress in the “semi-structured” and sparsely populated environment of farming than on roads open to random traffic.
“Agriculture has been a leading adapter of autonomous mobility technology for a long time,” Khasha Ghaffarzadeh, research director at IDTechEx, told Agri Investor. “Even though all the attention is on general driving, it is agriculture which is making the most advances.”
The firm predicts the market for autonomous vehicles in the agricultural sector will grow steadily from little more than $200 million today to more than $1.2 billion in 10 years’ time. By that stage, fully autonomous machines will represent more than one-sixth of that market, according to a copy of the report seen by Agri Investor.
The adoption of self-driving technology will happen in stages, the firm points out. In the first instance, “real-time kinematic” GPS is enabling tractor guidance, “relieving some of the pressure of maintaining driving accuracy.” The next step is the development of autosteer, which allows the operator to program a map into the tractor and let it navigate autonomously.
“The full ecosystem is finally coming together with more reliable variable-rate equipment such as seeders and sprayers,” the firm said. RTK GPS receiver sales are expected to increase from 210,000 last year to 335,000 in 2023; while 330,000 VRT equipment units are forecast to be sold by the same year, compared with 40,000 in 2015.
For farmers and their backers, the main objectives will be to boost the productivity of the driver, even though some control will often remain needed. “But perhaps the meaning of ‘staying in charge’ will change,” Ghaffarzadeh said. Instead of staying behind the wheel, an operator may be able to lead a fleet of autonomous vehicles remotely, he argued.
Including static robots and drones, IDTechEx estimates that the overall agricultural automation market will total $12 billion by 2027. This number is lower than the forecast from rival Tractica, which envisaged the ag robot market to reach $74 billion in annual sales by 2024.