Robotic technology is quietly transforming the world of agriculture and will grow to become a $45 billon industry by 2028, according to the IDTechEx ( research group.

Tractor guidance and autosteer are well-established technologies. In the short to medium terms, both will continue their growth thanks to improvements and cost reductions in RTK GPS technology. IDTechEx estimates that around 700,000 tractors equipped with autosteer or tractor guidance will be sold in 2028.

Unmanned autonomous tractors have also been technologically demonstrated with large-scale market introduction largely delayed — not by technical issues but by regulation, high sensor costs and the lack of farmers’ trust. This will start to slowly change from 2024 onwards, though the sales will only slowly grow. IDTechEx estimates that around 40,000 unmanned fully-autonomous (level 5) tractors will be sold in 2038. The take up will remain slow as users will only slowly become convinced that transitioning from level 4 to level 5 autonomy is value for money. This process will be helped by the rapidly falling price of the automaton suite.

“Autonomous mobile robots are causing a paradigm shift in the way we envisage commercial and industrial vehicles,” says IDTechEx. “In traditional thinking, bigger is often better. This is because bigger vehicles are faster and are thus more productive. This thinking holds true so long as each vehicle requires a human driver. The rise of autonomous mobility is however upending this long-established notion: fleets of small slow robots will replace or complement large fast manned vehicles.”

These robots also appear like strange creatures at first: they are small, slow, and lightweight. They therefore are less productive on a per unit basis than traditional vehicles. The key to success however lies in fleet operation. This is because the absence of a driver per vehicle enables remote fleet operation. IDTechEx’s model suggests that there is a very achievable operator-to-fleet-size ratio at which such agrobots become commercially attractive in the medium term.

“We are currently at the beginning of the beginning. Indeed, most examples of such robots are only in the prototypes or early stage commercial trial phase,” says the research group. “These robots however are now being trailed in larger numbers by major companies whilst smaller companies are making very modest sales.  The infection point, our models suggest, will arrive in 2024 onwards. At this point, sales will rapidly grow. These small agrobot fleets themselves will also grow in capability, evolving from data acquisition to weeding to offering multiple functionalities. Overall, we anticipate a market as large as $900M and $2.5Bn by 2028 and 2038, respectively. This will become a significant business but even it will remain a small subset of the overall agricultural vehicle industry.”