Robots on the farm – and they’re environment friendly

While yields on modern farms have begun to flat-line, technology offers a new path

 

Our countryside will host robotic labourers toiling away on farms, from dusk to dawn. Robots will watch over and tend to crops, while others ag-bots hoe weeds or spray pests. These are predictions from experts who say that self-guiding machines will soon revolutionise farming and perhaps redraw some of our landscapes.

The revolution will not mean that farmers hang up their boots and look out as robotic tractors run the farm. Rather, small autonomous farm robots will upend how farms improve profitability. Instead of one person doing more on a larger machine, fleets of machines will take on jobs.

“We have seen machines getting bigger all the time, so they can cover bigger areas a lot faster. But this is just one route to efficiency,” says Simon Blackmore, head of robotic agriculture at Harper Adams University in the UK. “Smaller, faster machines offer a different way.” Smart machines will use machine vision to identify plant pests, for example. They can spray for specific weeds or fungal outbreaks and target them only. “We can use sensors to makes sure we only deliver exactly what is needed at the right place and right time,” he adds.

There will be far less need to mass spray costly agrichemicals. In some cases, no chemicals will be needed. Blackmore’s research group is testing out a small robot that can distinguish weeds growing beside a crop plant and zap them with a small laser. The industry partner is an agrichemical company. Mostly it’s all about small start-up companies with no legacy in farm machinery. “The number of start-ups in the robotic agriculture area has absolutely mushroomed this year,” says Blackmore, who is involved in three start-ups himself.

Earlier this month, a small robot turned up at a farm fair in Surrey. The boxy Oz weeding robot trundled down rows of vegetables and will soon be available in Ireland [see panel below]. Blackmore sees fertile ground ahead in the UK for such a machine. “There is going to be less cheap labour available in the UK, given Brexit. We are already paying £2,000 (€2.3k) per hectare for handing weeding, so the economics is already there,” he says. The Oz will suit organic farms, which can require back-aching and expensive manual labour.

Some farm machines weight more than 50 tonnes and can damage though compaction, hurting crop yields for years after. Large machines are also expensive and wet weather can keep them off fields. “This never-ending drive towards ever large machines is really going to end soon. It will allow us come up with a far more flexible growing system,” says Blackmore. The expanses of a single crop suit machine behemoths but are also a wonderland for plant pests and diseases, which pushes farmers into needing more agrichemicals, which costs.

Roving smart machines may make it possible to get around this problem by mixing crops together. “Putting onions next to carrots can help with carrot fly problems, but we do not do that now because the machines don’t lend themselves to that work,” Blackmore explains. Smart machines can put into reverse gear a decades-old trend for bigger machines on larger fields of monocrops.

This can level the playing field for smaller farms. “In Ireland there are many smaller farms, family farms, that cannot take advantage of the economies of scale,” he believes. “We can make smaller farms a lot more efficient and then significantly increase the yield, all due to small, smart machines.” An added benefit: more diverse farming and environmentally-friendly practices, reducing blanket spraying of chemicals. The bet is that smarts will win over brawn in agriculture.

There are already high-tech tractors and combine harvesters that use GPS, but there are safety worries in making them entirely self-automating; smaller sized bots will come first due to safety but also lower costs. Blackmore took part in a European research project that tested small, automatic grass cutting machines, very relevant to Ireland’s grass-based farming.

Martin Glavin, director of the Connaught Automotive Research (CAR) Group at NUI Galway, is scoping out an idea for an autonomous weed machine for tillage. “There is more pressure coming on spraying and more chemicals are coming under scrutiny, and they are expensive. We feel there are opportunities for machines that can attend to crops,” he adds. “These days manpower is the scarcest resource in the countryside.” His group has experience in taking data from cameras and other sensors on cars. “We process the raw data and understand what it is you are sensing, and turn that into information,” says Glavin.

While yields on modern farms have begun to flat-line, technology offers a new path. For large farms, smart robots can reduce costly inputs. But the yield increases may come from elsewhere. “We must find significantly more yield to feed the planet. I think that is going to come form the smaller farms and the smaller fields, those which cannot take advantage of the big tractors,” Blackmore predicts.

Wall-E type robot for farms

A weeding bot will be made available to UK and Irish farmers this summer. Designed by French company Naio Technologies, the Wall-E type robot uses radar and video cameras to navigate around rows of crops.

“You have to give some tips to the robot. You tell it the number of rows it has to work on and approximate distance between rows,” explains Julian Laffront, export manager at Naio. Oz costs will €20,000 to €25,000, depending on tool and battery choices.

“The Oz can run for about eight hours a day on a full charge covering about one hectare,” says Prag Mistry, UK and Irish distributor at Agri Innovations. “One organic farmer used to take an hour and half to weed his leeks; it now takes 10 mins.” He is planning further demonstration of Oz at work in the UK and Ireland over this summer. If the robot encounters an obstacle or it has 20 per cent battery power lift, it will send a text message to the grower.

Naio has also been working on a larger glasshouse robot called Dino, which will be put through its paces this summer; it will mechanically weed vegetable rows to reduce the use of chemicals and save time for growers. It will guide itself around veg plots thanks to a GPS system and a set of cameras to guide the robot’s weeding tools as close as possible to the crop. While Oz weighs just over 110 kilos, Dino rocks in at 600 kilos.

Separately, robots look set to oust students from some summer picking jobs. In the UK, robotic engineers at Harper Adams University are developing a strawberry-picking robot, while a group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands has a prototype pepper picker. The challenge is for the robot vision to pick out its targets, even when partially obscured by leaves. This requires lightning fast algorithms and the ability of the machine to learn from experience.