Source: Deepfield Robotics
Farmers are increasingly under pressure to feed more people. The UN predicts that the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050. This growing population has become pickier about the food they eat. In the EU alone, the organic market grew by 7.4% in 2014 with sales valued at €24 billion. Beyond organic food, there is an overall push to make farming greener by using less water and pesticides.
“Agriculture is most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but it’s also one of its causes”, says Birgit Schulz from Deepfield Robotics. “Making cultivation sustainable is essential”.
These factors mean farmers need to produce more, at a higher quality, and in a sustainable manner. With youth turning away from the profession, there is also less labour available to drive the vision forward.
Enter the robots — set to improve production yield, while reducing resources required, and making farming an exciting high-tech profession.
“Few people want to get up at 5am, farming is a heavy and dirty job.”, says Eldert van Henten, head of the the Farm Technology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He adds that, “the high-tech nature of future farming might attract new people into the profession, but also bring back those who left”.
Robots are just part of an overall push towards precision agriculture. Given the potential, Europe has funded at least 6 projects around robotic farming. And there is plenty to do given the large number of tasks on a farm that are ripe for automation.
For crop farming, robots need to autonomously navigate their environment and perform actions at set locations, for example, picking a fruit, spraying a pesticide, planting a seed, imaging a plant, or making a measurement. Glasshouses are slightly simpler to move around since the environment is more carefully engineered, and is often fit with tracks which robots follow to reach desired locations. In the case of outdoor farming, the robots work by receiving a plan with a set of locations to visit on the field. When the robot trajectories are known, the robot can use GPS positioning and a closed-loop control to make sure it remains on track. When the task is to follow an unknown trajectory, for example a crop row, vision is often used to allow the robot to find its way. Robots are wirelessly connected to a central operator to both receive updated instructions regarding the mission, and report status and data. Put together, making an autonomous farm robot requires clever controllers, localisation and communication systems. To a certain extent, the technology is similar to that of autonomous cars applied to agtech. Where it differs is that farming robots often need to manipulate their environment, picking vegetables or fruits, applying pesticides in a localised manner, or planting seeds. All these tasks require sensing, manipulation, and processing of their own.
The recently finished project RHEA developed a fleet of tractors and aerial robots with sensor systems to discriminate weeds from crops and apply herbicides where needed. Pablo Gonzalez de Santos, the lead on the project, explains what is achievable today:
“Autonomous robots have already been demonstrated in many agricultural activities. Conventional tasks such as tilling, sowing, harvesting of grains, can be performed using autonomous robots with the accuracy provided by the vehicle itself (currently about ±2 cm when using GNSS technology). For other tasks that demand the use of vision to follow trajectories, the current accuracy is approximately ±7 cm.”
When it comes to using robots with intelligent tools, the achievements are promising.
“Autonomous tractors carrying herbicide sprayers coordinating with drones equipped with weed-detection systems have proven to save up to 75% of the herbicide. Autonomous tractors equipped with on-board weed detection systems are able to kill 90% of weeds on a field.”