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Agricultural Robots and AI: A Question of When rather than If

Agricultural Robots and AI: A Question of When rather than If

 

Robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will drive a deep and transformative change in the agricultural world during the coming decades. Seeing, localising, and taking plant-specific intelligent action are no longer the exclusive realm of humans. Machines have demonstrated the technical viability and the emphasis has long shifted to the finer details of ROI, reliability, business model, etc. As such, a new class of activities in agriculture are prone to automation, just as advances in power and motion technologies mechanized many agricultural tasks, or just as advances in seed and agrochemical technology removed the human from many activities. 

In an article published by market research firm IDTechEx, which has studied the technologies, applications, products, and players in agricultural robotics and AI for the past five years, the firm argues that the upcoming changes are already a question of when and not if. The article is based on the IDTechEx report “Agricultural Robots, Drones, and AI: 2020-2040: Technologies, Markets, and Players”, which covers the latest developments and reflects our latest insights, analysis, and market projections.  

The transformation will not be overnight, but nonetheless, robotics and AI are an inevitability in the evolution of agricultural tools and practises. The scale of the potential is demonstrated in the chart below, which shows the forecasted long-term growth in annual unit sales (vs accumulated fleet size) of various autonomous and/or robotic solutions.

Agricultural Robots: A Cost-Effective Precision Revolution?

Machine vision technology is often a core competency of these robots, enabling the robots to see, identify, localise, and to take some intelligent site-specific action on individual plants. The machine vision increasingly uses deep learning algorithms often trained on expert-annotated image datasets, allowing the technology to far exceed the performance of conventional algorithms and to match or even exceed even that of expert agronomists. Crucially, this approach enables a long-term technology roadmap, which can be extended to recognise all types of crops and to analyse their associated conditions, e.g., water-stress, disease, etc.

Many versions of this emerging robotic class are autonomous.  The autonomy challenge is much simpler than a car. The environment is well controlled and predictable, and the speed of travel is low. The legislation is today a hindrance, including in places such as California, but will become more accommodative relatively soon.

The rise of autonomous robots, provided they require little remote supervision, can alter the economics of machine design, enabling the rise of smaller and slower machines. Indeed, this elimination of the driver overhead per vehicle is the basis of the swarm concept. There is clearly a large productivity gap today between current large and high-power vehicles and those composed of fleets of slow small robots. This productivity gap however can narrow as the latter has substantial room for improvement.

The first major target market is in weeding. The ROI benefits here are driven by labour savings, chemical savings, boosted yields, and less land compaction. Precision action (spraying, mechanical, or electrical) reduces consumption of agrochemicals by 90% compared to untargeted application.  It also improves yield (e.g., by 5-10%) because collateral damage of the crops by untargeted chemical application can be minimized. This technology can further enable farmers to tackle herbicide-resistant weeds, which are a growing problem, especially in some hotspots. Finally, the robots leave behind no unusable compacted soil.

These robots are evolving. Many robots have already grown in size and capability, offering faster speeds, higher frame-per-seconds, more ruggedised designs, higher on-board energy for longer operation time and a heavier load, and so on. This evolution will inevitably continue, just as it did with all other agricultural tools and vehicles. We are still at the beginning. The deployed fleet sizes worldwide are small, but this is about to change (see the chart above).

 

 TAGS: robots, AI, agriculture, IDTechex, research, technology

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Grape polyphenols help offset harm of high fat diet

“The results showed that the high-fat diet combined with grape polyphenols reduced the percentage of body fat, subcutaneous and visceral fat depots, markers of inflammation in the liver and fat depots, and improved glucose tolerance and intestinal barrier function."

Grape polyphenols helped offset some of the adverse health consequences of consuming a high fat diet rich in saturated fat, according to two laboratory studies1,2 conducted at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, and published recently in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

According to a press release by the California Table Grape Commission, in the first study, the researchers found that consuming a high butter-fat diet (33% of energy from fat) enriched with 3% grapes for 11 weeks was associated with a lower percentage of overall body fat and reduced subcutaneous fat deposits. These reductions in body fat were positively associated with changes in intestinal microbes and health; e.g., increases in some beneficial bacteria, decreases in some less desirable bacterial strains, increases in microbial diversity, and improved gut barrier function.

In the second study, which ran for 16 weeks, the researchers used an even higher fat diet (44% of energy from fat ) with multiple types of saturated fat, including lard, beef tallow, shortening, and butter similar to some Western-type diets. They investigated the impact of the high fat diet enriched with extracts of either the polyphenol fraction of grapes or the non-polyphenol portion of grapes, as well as the high fat diet plus 5% whole grapes. All the high fat experimental diets were matched for sugar type and amount.

“The results showed that the high-fat diet combined with grape polyphenols reduced the percentage of body fat, subcutaneous and visceral fat depots, markers of inflammation in the liver and fat depots, and improved glucose tolerance and intestinal barrier function. While the 5% whole grape diet did not improve the metabolic profile in this second study, it did improve markers of intestinal health; e.g., increased microbial diversity and decreased abundance of several deleterious bacteria in the intestinal tract,” the commission said.

Obesity affects approximately one-third of the adult population in the U.S. and is associated with inflammatory conditions that disrupt the metabolic process and can lead to metabolic syndrome. Gut microbes are thought to play a role in the development of metabolic syndrome; e.g., obesity is associated with a decrease in microbial diversity and impaired barrier function in the intestinal tract.

“These two studies suggest that grapes and grape polyphenols may help offset a number of the adverse effects of consuming a high fat diet and trigger improvements in intestinal or systemic health,” said Michael McIntosh PhD, lead investigator of the study. “This is an exciting area of health that merits further study.”

1 Baldwin J et al. Table grape consumption reduces adiposity and markers of hepatic lipogenesis and alters gut microbiota in butter fat-fed mice. J Nutr Biochem 27 (2016) 123 – 135.

2 Collins B et al. A polyphenol-rich fraction obtained from table grapes decreases adiposity, insulin resistance and markers of inflammation and impacts gut microbiota in high-fat fed mice. J Nutr Biochem 31 (2016) 150-165.

Source of images: Grapes from California

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Study backs protective role of grapes against stress

GRAPES white table

Feeding animals a diet enriched with whole grape powder prior to stress exposure successfully countered the detrimental effects of that stress on brain function and behavior, according to a press release from the California Table Grape Commission.

Conducted at the University of Houston and recently published in the Journal of Nutrition Research, the study investigated the protective role of grapes against stress, and the mechanisms by which grapes achieved this, the commission said.

Specifically, it was found that grape intake prevented the memory impairment and anxiety-like behaviors that were observed in the rats with stress but no grapes in their diet. The researchers attributed these benefits to both gene activation and enhanced antioxidant activity resulting from grape intake, the commission said. 

For the animals on the grape-enriched diets, freeze-dried, whole grape powder was added to the drinking water for 3 weeks, followed by either the stress or control exposure, and then behavior tests.

“Grapes appear to influence several processes that support brain health,” said Samina Salim, Ph.D., the lead investigator. “The potential interplay between grapes’ antioxidant activity and their impact on cell communication is very intriguing to us and we intend to study it further.”

 

http://www.nrjournal.com/article/S0271-5317(14)00268-1/abstract