Are autonomous vehicles a solution to agricultural labour shortage?

Are autonomous vehicles a solution to agricultural labour shortage?

Bonsai Robotics is a startup that specialises in AI-powered automation solutions for agriculture. The company partners with existing equipment manufacturers to enhance performance, efficiency, and insights across agricultural operations. 

And with the current lack of workers in the agricultural sector, Bonsai is accelerating its production of autonomous vehicles – to give growers a viable solution to labour shortages. 

Farms around the world are struggling to fill labour positions. In the UK for example, it’s estimated that there are around 500,000 vacancies out of 4.1 million roles in the sector – which threatens food security, animal welfare, and the mental and physical health of those who are working in the sector. In the first half of 2022 alone, GBP £22 million worth of fruit and vegetables were wasted as a direct result of UK labour shortages.

Across the European Union, one 2022 report found that 29 countries are experiencing labour shortages in agriculture, forestry, and fishery. Japan is reported to be suffering a chronic worker shortage in agriculture; and a similar picture can be found in many other countries and regions, including the US and Canada. 

While nations work to attract migrant labourers in order to fill the gaps, technologists are also hard at work developing potential solutions to protect food security, agricultural profitability, and reduce waste. 

Bonsai Robotics is accelerating the production of autonomous agriculture vehicles

In October 2023 Bonsai Robotics (founded in 2022) announced USD $13.5 million raised in seed funding, to support its production of vision-based automation tools. At present, its vehicles are designed for use in nut orchards – but there’s potential to scale across agricultural uses. The seed funding round was led by Acre Venture Partners, and involved several angel investors. 

Bonsai’s tech enables farmers to operate agricultural equipment (including heavy machinery) from their smartphones. Trials were conducted with California nut tree growers this year, and the startup has partnered with major machinery manufacturers to integrate the technology with their equipment. 

The startup’s software leverages technologies including AI Simultaneous Localisation and Mapping tech, and can operate in challenging conditions – relying on interoperability with many different machines. It could replace GPS-based systems that have been known to fail in adverse harvesting conditions. 

It’s a significant move towards efficient autonomous agriculture

We’re a long way off from autonomous vehicles and AI-powered tech eliminating the need for the majority of human workers in agriculture. But automation is one piece of the puzzle, and could help to ease the pressure for farmers and nations. 

Effective autonomous vehicles could:

  • Allow farmers to deploy multiple unmanned vehicles when harvest conditions or labour shortages make it difficult to secure sufficient worker numbers.
  • Increase efficiency. Autonomous vehicles can undertake tasks faster, and more accurately, than human workers.
  • Reduce costs. While autonomous vehicles are currently expensive, they could reduce high labour costs and save money over time. 

Speaking about Bonsai’s technology, Ceil Hower (Partner and Principal at Pomona Farming) said in a statement: 

“This is the most transformative technology I’ve seen in ag tech since the advent of GPS – it will redefine how we approach orchard management and harvesting.” 

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