Robots and driverless tractors to aid farmers

TOKYO • As the average age of farmers globally creeps higher and retirement looms, Japan has a solution: robots and driverless tractors.

The Group of Seven agriculture ministers are meeting in Japan's northern prefecture of Niigata over this weekend for the first time in seven years to discuss how to meet increasing food demand as ageing farmers retire without successors.

With the average age of Japanese farmers now 67, Agriculture Minister Hiroshi Moriyama will outline his idea of replacing retiring growers with Japanese- developed autonomous tractors and backpack-carried robots.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has warned that left unchecked, ageing farmers could threaten the ability to produce the food the world needs. The average age of growers in developed countries is now about 60, according to the United Nations.

Japan plans to spend four billion yen (S$48.5 million) in the year to promote farm automation and help develop 20 different types of robots, including one that separates over-ripe peaches when harvesting.

Kubota Corp, Japan's largest maker of agricultural machinery, has already developed its first prototype autonomous tractor for use in rice paddies. Equipped with a global positioning system, the vehicle cultivates fields and fertilises after checking soil conditions.

Kubota is also developing and marketing a suit-like device to help farmers harvest and carry fruit and vegetables.

"Applying new technologies to farming will boost the appeal of agriculture to younger people," said analyst Takaki Shigemoto at researcher JSC Corp.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Robots and driverless tractors to aid farmers'. Print Edition | Subscribe