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By Sofia Strodt
In the Dutch province of Zeeland, a robot moves quickly through a field of crops including sunflowers, shallots and onions. The machine weeds autonomously – and tirelessly – day in, day out.
“Farmdroid” has made life much easier for Mark Buijze, who runs an organic farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Buijze is one of the few owners of robots in European agriculture.
Robots to the rescue
His electronic tiller uses GPS and is multi-functional, switching between weeding and seeding. With the push of a button, Buijze only needs to enter coordinates and Farmdroid takes it from there.
‘With the robot, the weeding can be completed in one to two days – a task that would normally take weeks and around four to five workers if done manually,’ he said. ‘Using GPS, the machine can identify the exact location of where it needs to go in the field.’
About 12,000 years ago, the end of foraging and beginning of agriculture heralded great improvements in people’s quality of life. Few sectors have a history as rich as that of farming, which has evolved over the centuries in step with technological progress.
However, in the current era, agriculture has been slower than other industries to follow one technological trend: artificial intelligence (AI). Although already widely used in forms ranging from automated chatbots and facial recognition to car braking and warehouse controls, AI for agriculture is still in the early stages of development.
Now, advances in research are prompting farmers to embrace robots by showing how they can do everything from the need for field hands to early detection of crop diseases.
Lean and green
For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, farming in Europe will require much greater use of robots to be productive, competitive and green – three top EU goals for a sector whose output is worth around €190 billion a year.
One reason for using robots is the need to abandon the use of herbicides by eliminating weeds the old-fashioned way: mechanical weeding, a task that is not only mundane, but also difficult and time-consuming. Another is the frequent shortage of workers to prune vines.
“In both cases, robots will help,” says Pinel, who is research and development project manager at Terrena Innovation in France. “This is our idea of the future for European agriculture.”
Pinel is part of the EU-funded ROBS4CROPS project. With around 50 experts and 16 institutional partners involved, this is pioneering work with a robotic technology on participating farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.
“This initiative is quite innovative,” said Frits van Evert, coordinator of the project. “It hasn’t been done before.”
In the weeds
AI in agriculture looks promising for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year such as weeding, according to van Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
“When you grow a crop like potatoes, you usually plant the crop once a year in the spring and you harvest in the fall, but the weeding has to be done somewhere between six and 10 times a year,” he said.
Additionally, there is the issue of speed. Often, machines work faster than any human can.
Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, coordinator of the EU-funded FLEXIGROBOTS project, was particularly impressed by a model robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this practice requires special care to avoid contamination, delivery to a laboratory, and days of analysis.
“With this robot, everything is done in the field,” said De Santos. ‘It can take several samples per hour, producing results in a matter of minutes.’
Ultimately, he said, the benefits of such technologies will extend beyond the farm industry to reach the general public by increasing the overall supply of food.
Meanwhile, agricultural robots may be in demand, not because they can work faster than any human, but simply because no humans are available for the job.
Even before inflation rates and fertilizer prices began to rise in 2021 amid an energy crunch exacerbated this year by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, farmers across Europe struggled on another front: finding enough field hands, including seasonal workers.
“Labor is one of the biggest obstacles in agriculture,” van Evert said. ‘These days it is expensive and difficult to get, because fewer and fewer people are willing to work in agriculture. We think that robots, such as self-driving tractors, can remove this obstacle.’
The idea behind ROBS4CROPS is to create a robotic system where existing agricultural machinery is upgraded so that it can work in tandem with farm robots.
For the system to work, raw data such as images or videos must first be labeled by researchers in ways that can later be read by the AI.
The system then uses this large amount of information to make “smart” decisions as well as predictions – for example, think of the autocorrect function on laptops and mobile phones.
A farm controller comparable to the “brain” of the entire operation decides what should happen next or how much work needs to be done and where – based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.
The machinery – self-driving tractors and smart implements such as weeding machines equipped with sensors and cameras – collects and stores more information as it works and becomes “smarter”.
FLEXIGROBOTS, based in Spain, aims to help farmers use existing robots for multiple tasks, including disease detection.
Take drones for example. Because they can spot a diseased plant from the air, drones can help farmers detect diseased crops early and prevent a wider infestation.
“If you can’t detect diseases at an early stage, you can lose the yield of an entire field, the production of an entire year,” said De Santos. “The only option is to remove the infected plant.”
For example, there is no treatment for the fungus known as mildew, so it is essential to identify and remove diseased plants early.
Aggregating information is key to making the entire system smarter, De Santos said. By sharing data collected by drones with robots or feeding the information into models, the “intelligence” of the machines is expanding.
Although agronomist Pinel does not believe that agriculture will ever be solely dependent on robotics, he is certain about its revolutionary impact.
“In the future, we hope that the farmers can just put a few small robots in the field and let them work all day,” he said.
Research in this article was funded by the EU. This material was originally published in Horizonthe EU Research and Innovation Journal.