The United States’ agricultural industry must continue to adapt, improvise, consolidate and automate in order to overcome the challenges of a rising population and an increased scarcity of resources. Robotics, smart technology and drones are among the technologies that will be increasingly incorporated into the industry as agricultural producers cope with increased global demand, declining resources and rising labor costs. Driverless tractors, drones that monitor soil quality, automated irrigation and even robotic bees to pollinate crops are all tools that farmers will have at their disposal as they seek to profit in a future of higher demand and fewer resources.

The use of automation or robotics is not a new concept for farmers or ranchers. Dairy farmers, especially in the United States, have been incorporating robotic milking machines to improve output since the 1990s, and the use of such machines is expected to spread. Machinery on many large farms in the Central United States is outfitted with numerous computers; seed planting is often automated, and harvesting can be guided by GPS. However, technology will only be incorporated when it makes economic sense, meaning that labor availability and costs will be as important to adaptation as the development of technology.

Big data and smart technologies will play an increasingly important role in improving agricultural production in the United States over the course of the next 10 years. Drones, a technology developed by and for other sectors and usually associated with military operations, will dramatically improve the way the agricultural sector collects and uses information. Sensors continuously measuring anything from soil moisture or nitrogen content to the biometrics of livestock will allow farmers to more efficiently utilize limited resources such as water and fertilizer. Adaptation of this type of technology will be simpler and quicker than of fully robotic harvesting or of completely driverless tractors. It is the next step in an existing trend of data-driven agriculture. The necessary drones are already relatively inexpensive, and estimated cost to the farmer could be as low as $1,000 per drone. Although it depends on the specific technology and on Federal Aviation Administration regulations, many sensors could become economically viable and be used more widely within five years.

Drones will help increase the precision of farming, thereby increasing yields and decreasing input costs, but they do not fully address one of the major input costs of farming: manual labor. Farmers will incorporate robotic harvesting technologies — robots that pick strawberries, robotic bees to pollinate crops or tractors that drive themselves both day and night — only when doing so makes economic sense. We expect labor costs to continue to rise, and improvements in robotics will eventually bring the costs of using such technology down. Farmers will have to wait for other industries to develop some of the more advanced technologies first, but, just as it has in previous decades, the U.S. agricultural industry will remain competitive and will supply the global market by incorporating new technologies.