ROBOTS have already started to “quietly transform” many aspects of agriculture, according to a new report on the emerging technology.
The IDTechEx report, published this week, claims that there is a worldwide $3billion market for agricultural robots and drones in 2016, which is set to grow to $10bn by as early as 2022.
Setting out a roadmap of how imminent robotic technology developments will change the business of agriculture, the report identifies at least 14 different robotic/drone technologies that will become commercial reality in the years ahead.
On dairy farms, thousands of robotic milking parlours have already been installed worldwide, while more mobile robots are also already penetrating dairy units, helping automate tasks such as feed pushing or manure cleaning.
In arable fields, autonomous tractor guidance and autosteer technologies are also going mainstream thanks to improvements and cost reductions in RTK GPS technology. More than 300,000 tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold in 2016, rising to more than 660k units per year by 2026. 
Entirely unmanned autonomous tractors have also been technologically demonstrated – the obstacle to large-scale market introduction is not technical issues but regulation and the lack of farmers’ trust. This, reckons IDTechEx, will all change by 2022, and sales of unmanned or master-slave ‘follow me’ tractors will reach $200m by 2026.
Meanwhile unmanned remote-controlled helicopters have been spraying rice fields in Japan since the early 1990s, while autonomous drones have started providing detailed aerial maps of farms worldwide, enabling farmers to take site-specific action. These developments, said the report, will soon enter their ‘boom years’ as regulatory barriers lower and precision farming becomes the norm.
The report also sees big changes in agricultural activities that have, until now, depended very much on the sensitivities of the human hand. In particular, robotic weeding implements, which have been in commercial use for some years in organic farming, are increasingly reaching navigational autonomy, with the vision capability and intelligence to roam farms, analysing plants and taking specific actions such as eliminating a weed. 
Whilst most products are in prototype or semi-commercial trial phase, the first notable sales have also taken place aimed at small multi-crop vegetable farmers. This, said the report, would become a $300m market by 2026.
Similarly, for fresh fruit harvesting, there are a limited number of fresh strawberry harvesters already being commercially trialled, whilst fresh apple and citrus harvesters have also reached the level of late stage prototyping.