EUROP, The European Robotics Technology Platform, is out with a press release about a new fleet of agricultural robots that may soon be heading off to farmers’ barns worldwide. EUROP’s stated purpose is “to strengthen Europe’s competitiveness in robotics research and development and global markets, as well as to improve the quality of life of European citizens through robotics.” Obviously there are farmers worldwide and we all eat, so their ventures in robot farm hands really affect us all.
The new generation of agricultural robots have notched up some impressive trial results already.
The statistics EUROP presents to support the need for mechanized farming are potent and eye-opening; the gist of the forecast is for far fewer farmers with an ever-growing need for the food that they produce. Robotics is an obvious solution and equal to the task. Robotics Business Review has been closely following the coming of age of agri-bots and agricultural automation for some time and will continue to do so. RBR50 members, especially John Deere, Harvest Automation and Precise Path Robotics are intensely involved in the segment.
The dream of farm automation coming true–finally
Of course, the dream of agricultural automation has been with us for some time now, as evidenced by the “push button” farm cartoon from a 1958 magazine for Kansas State agricultural students. Unlike fifty years ago, today’s automated farm hands have real potential that’s very close to reality, and in some cases are realities already. One such prototype that’s receiving a lot of EUROP attention is the red, beetle-shaped Crop Scout (pictured above).
“The robotic Crop Scout,” writes EUROP, “is a monitoring platform capable of measuring crops and checking for disease. Currently, farmers routinely use pesticide and herbicide as a prophylactic and spray their crops whether pests or disease are present. Trials with the Crop Scout resulted in a 98% reduction in the amount of spray used, as the Robotic Sprayer sent by the Crop Scout treated only the small area affected by disease or pests.” In addition, the CropScout is being touted for seeding, weeding and harvesting as well. Such versatility in a single agri-bot will be much welcomed.
“With agricultural labor shortages all over the world,” reports EUROP, “and demographics showing the average age of farmers steadily climbing, complacency about the security of our food production isn’t an option,” the delegates to the European Robotics Forum 2012 were told. In tandem with this future uncertainty, in the Developed World at least, there are growing concerns about product quality and safety, as well as the environmental impact of agriculture.
Complex robots for complex tasks
“Until now, thanks to a reliance on large scale, mechanized agriculture combined with cheap labor in emerging economies, the routine deployment of robotics has been confined to a small number of specific tasks, such as milking, feed distribution and farm cleaning,” explained Prof. Simon Blackmore, head of Engineering at Harper Adams University College. “Earlier attempts to build complex robots capable of using virtual sight to, for example, harvest difficult to handle or delicate crops met with the conclusion that such robots were not sufficiently robust, were too slow and too expensive.”
Robot researchers found that the combination of human hand eye co-ordination, dexterous manipulation and advanced object recognition was desirable, but simply too challenging. With support from the EURON and EUROP robotic networks, the Forum saw the founding of EARN, the Euro Agri Robotics Network.
Automated machinery and robot farm hands getting nearer
“We’ve started with a clean sheet of paper,” commented Blackmore. “We’re re-evaluating the whole approach to agriculture. At the moment, crops are drilled in straight rows to suit machines, but what if they were drilled to follow the contours of the land, or to take account of the micro level environmental conditions within a portion of a field? The potential boost to production we could generate if harvests were staggered to suit the crop rather than mechanization is immense. We’re talking about micro tillage, mechanical weeding and planting using small, smart, autonomous, modular machines.”
Delegates at the Forum saw demonstrator multi task robots from The Universities of Copenhagen, South Denmark, Wageningen and Kaiserslautern and the research institute of WUR in The Netherlands in action. One application was the robotic Crop Scout, a monitoring platform capable of measuring crops and checking for disease. Currently, farmers routinely use pesticide and herbicide as a prophylactic and spray their crops whether pests or disease are present. Trials with the Crop Scout resulted in a 98% reduction in the amount of spray used, as the Robotic Sprayer sent by the Crop Scout treated only the small area affected by disease or pests.
Robust and affordable robots necessary for low margin industry
The new generation of agricultural robots have notched up some impressive trial results already. Though much smaller than typical farm machinery, they can act cooperatively and carry out tasks such as spraying with a boom. Lasers are used for multiple tasks, from harvesting to weeding. Tractor operations like ploughing, disking and harrowing always create soil compaction and also typically move over 65% of the field area while operating. Yet studies show that 90% of cultivation energy is used to repair damage caused by tractors.
“The obvious conclusion is we must stop running tractors on land wherever possible,” said Blackmore. “The new generation of lightweight robots will move on wide, low pressure tires and only cultivate the minimum volume of soil to create the required seed environment. Seeds will be precisely placed, according to soil moisture levels. Their movements will be controlled by SAFAR (Software Architecture for Agricultural Robots) and routes will be planned via Google Earth. These demonstrators have also proved themselves capable of selective harvesting, enabling farmers to grow a higher quality of crop, as those plants that still need time to grow, are left in the field.”
“Unlike industries like aerospace, agriculture is a low margin industry, so it is vital that these new robots are both robust and affordable. Realistically, they are bound to be put to work on high value crops to begin with..there have already been trials on sensors designed to artificially ‘smell’ ripeness. Agriculture twenty years from now will be a mix of the traditional and the new, but the new robots will be intelligent enough to work with the natural environment to maintain both economic competitiveness and sustainable, high quality food production.”