Technological challenges facing autonomous robots in agriculture

Adopting autonomous robots in agriculture promises numerous benefits, including increased efficiency, reduced labor costs, and more precise farming practices. Autonomous robots are poised to revolutionize agriculture by offering innovative solutions to farmers’ challenges.

With precision and accuracy in tasks like planting, seeding, and crop management, these robots can optimize resource usage, enhance productivity, and minimize labor costs. However, several technological challenges hinder the full autonomy of these robots in various agricultural tasks such as planting or seeding, crop management, selective harvesting, and phenotyping.

This article explores the major technological difficulties that must be addressed to realize the potential of autonomous agricultural robots.

1. Planting or Seeding Crops

Precision and Accuracy:

Planting and seeding require high precision to ensure optimal crop growth. Autonomous robots must accurately navigate fields, identify correct planting depths, and space seeds appropriately. Robots may plant seeds at incorrect depths or spacings without high precision and accuracy, leading to poor crop establishment and uneven growth. Solving this challenge ensures uniformity, which is key to efficient field management and harvesting. Achieving this level of precision involves sophisticated GPS and sensor technologies, which are still evolving.

Companies like John Deere have developed solutions such as the ExactEmerge planting system, which uses high-speed, precise seed placement technology to ensure uniform planting depth and spacing. Additionally, startup companies like FarmWise work on autonomous planting robots that integrate real-time kinematic (RTK) GPS and computer vision to enhance planting accuracy.

Soil Variability:

Fields often have varying soil types and conditions, requiring robots to adapt their planting strategies. Advanced soil sensing technologies and adaptive algorithms must handle these variations in real-time. Failure to adapt to soil variability can result in seeds being planted in suboptimal conditions, reducing crop vigor and yield. Uniform planting without considering soil variability can also lead to inefficient use of water, fertilizers, and other inputs, increasing costs and environmental impact.

AGCO and Trimble provide soil sensing technologies and variable rate seeding systems to address soil variability. These systems collect soil data and adjust planting parameters in real time. For instance, Trimble’s GreenSeeker sensors measure crop health and soil conditions, enabling variable rate application of seeds and fertilizers.

Obstacle Detection and Avoidance:

Fields are dynamic environments with obstacles such as rocks, debris, and uneven terrain. Robots need advanced obstacle detection and avoidance systems, combining LIDAR, cameras, and machine learning algorithms, to navigate these challenges effectively. Collisions with obstacles can damage the robot and require costly repairs, while frequent interruptions to remove or navigate around obstacles can reduce operational efficiency and increase downtime. Poor obstacle avoidance can also damage existing crops, reducing yield and quality.

Companies like Blue River Technology (acquired by John Deere) are developing advanced computer vision and machine learning algorithms that allow robots to detect and navigate around obstacles. These systems utilize LIDAR and camera-based sensors to create detailed maps of the field environment.

2. Crop Management

Weed Detection and Control:

Distinguishing between crops and weeds is a significant challenge. Robots must have advanced vision systems and machine learning algorithms capable of accurately identifying and targeting weeds without damaging crops. Ineffective weed control allows weeds to compete with crops, significantly reducing yields, while inaccurate weed detection may result in the over-application of herbicides, increasing costs, and environmental damage. Incorrect targeting of herbicides can also damage crops, reducing yield and quality.

Blue River Technology’s See & Spray system leverages machine learning and computer vision to identify and selectively spray herbicides on weeds, significantly reducing chemical usage and protecting crops.

Pest and Disease Detection:

Early detection of pests and diseases is critical for effective crop management. Autonomous robots require sophisticated sensors and imaging technologies to identify signs of infestation or disease. Integrating these technologies with predictive analytics can help in timely interventions. Pest and disease outbreaks can spread rapidly without early detection, causing significant damage before intervention is possible. Delays addressing pest and disease issues can lead to substantial crop loss and reduced profitability. Besides, late intervention often requires more aggressive and costly control measures, impacting farm economics.

Companies like Taranis and Prospera Technologies provide high-resolution imaging and AI-driven analytics to monitor crop health and detect early signs of disease or pest infestation. Taranis uses drone and satellite imagery combined with deep learning to provide real-time insights into crop health.

Variable Rate Technology:

Applying fertilizers, pesticides, and water variably across a field based on real-time data is complex. Robots must integrate multiple data sources (e.g., soil sensors and weather data) and use advanced algorithms to make precise applications, ensuring resource efficiency and minimizing environmental impact. Uniform application of inputs without considering field variability leads to wasted resources and higher costs. Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides can lead to runoff and pollution, harming surrounding ecosystems. Inconsistent application of inputs can result in areas of the field receiving too much or too little, affecting crop health and yield.

PrecisionHawk and Farmers Edge offer platforms combining drone imagery, soil sensors, and weather data to enable precise fertilizers, pesticides, and water applications. These platforms use advanced algorithms to process data and generate actionable insights for farmers.

3. Selective Harvesting

Fruit and Vegetable Recognition:

Selective harvesting requires robots to identify ripe produce accurately. This involves advanced image recognition and machine learning techniques, which are still improving in their ability to handle variations in color, size, and shape under different lighting conditions. Inaccurate recognition systems may result in unripe or overripe produce being harvested, reducing market value. Incorrectly harvested produce may not be suitable for sale, leading to increased waste and economic losses. Inaccurate systems may still require human oversight, reducing the efficiency gains from automation.

Companies like FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics are developing robotic harvesters equipped with sophisticated cameras and AI to differentiate between ripe and unripe produce. These robots can operate under varying lighting conditions and adjust their algorithms accordingly.

Delicate Handling:

Harvesting delicate fruits and vegetables without causing damage is challenging. Robots need to develop sophisticated grippers and handling mechanisms that can adapt to different types of produce, ensuring minimal bruising or spoilage. Ineffective handling mechanisms can bruise or damage produce, reducing its quality and shelf life. Damaged produce is more susceptible to spoilage, leading to higher post-harvest losses. Poor handling can also decrease the market value of produce, impacting overall profitability.

FFRobotics has designed robotic grippers that mimic the human hand, allowing for the gentle picking of fruits and vegetables. Similarly, Octinion’s Rubion robot uses a soft touch gripping mechanism to handle strawberries delicately.

Navigation and Coordination:

Robots must efficiently navigate through rows of crops, which can be dense and irregular. This requires robust navigation systems that can operate in tight and often complex environments without causing damage to the crops. Poor navigation systems can slow down harvesting operations, reducing overall efficiency. Ineffective coordination and navigation can damage crops, reducing yield and quality. Inefficiencies in navigation and coordination may necessitate additional labor or equipment, increasing operational costs.

Bosch’s Deepfield Robotics has developed robots that use a combination of GPS, LIDAR, and camera-based systems for precise navigation and coordination. These robots can operate autonomously, avoiding obstacles and coordinating with other machines in the field.

4. Phenotyping

High-Throughput Data Collection:

Phenotyping involves collecting large amounts of data on plant traits. Autonomous robots must have high-resolution cameras, multispectral sensors, and other data collection tools. Managing and processing this data in real time is a significant challenge. Inadequate data collection can result in incomplete or inaccurate phenotypic information, hindering research and development efforts. Without high-throughput data collection, breeding programs may be slower and less effective in developing improved crop varieties. Limited data collection can also lead to missed insights into plant performance, affecting management decisions and crop outcomes.

Companies like Phenome Networks and LemnaTec provide high-throughput phenotyping platforms that use drones, ground robots, and fixed imaging stations to collect detailed data on plant traits. These platforms utilize high-resolution cameras and multispectral sensors to capture a wide range of phenotypic information.

Data Integration and Analysis:

Combining phenotypic data with other data sources (e.g., genomic data environmental conditions) requires advanced data integration techniques. Machine learning and big data analytics are essential for deriving meaningful insights from the vast amount of collected data. Poor data integration can result in fragmented and incomplete analysis, limiting the usefulness of the collected data. Farmers and researchers may make suboptimal decisions without effective data analysis, affecting crop management and breeding outcomes. Inadequate data analysis can also lead to missed opportunities for improvement in crop yields, resilience, and quality.

Benson Hill Biosystems offers a cloud-based platform called CropOS, which integrates phenotypic, genotypic, and environmental data. Using machine learning and big data analytics, CropOS provides insights that help improve crop breeding and management practices.

Scalability and Cost:

Developing cost-effective phenotyping robots that can operate at scale is another challenge. Ensuring these robots are affordable and reliable for widespread use in various agricultural settings is crucial for their adoption. High costs and lack of scalability can limit the adoption of advanced phenotyping technologies to larger, well-funded operations, excluding smaller farms. Without widespread adoption, the pace of innovation in crop breeding and management may be slower, affecting overall agricultural progress. Costly and unscalable solutions may create economic barriers for farmers, preventing them from benefiting from advanced phenotyping technologies.

Fieldwork Robotics and Saga Robotics are working on modular and scalable phenotyping robots that can be adapted to different crop types and field conditions. These robots are designed to be cost-effective, making advanced phenotyping accessible to a broader range of farmers.


While the potential for autonomous robots in agriculture is immense, significant technological challenges remain. Advances in precision navigation, sensor technologies, machine learning, and data analytics are crucial to overcoming these obstacles. As research and development continue, these robots are expected to play an increasingly vital role in modern agriculture, enhancing productivity and sustainability. However, addressing the outlined challenges will be key to unlocking their full potential and ensuring their successful integration into agricultural practices.