Progress On Crop Machinery Robotics

For several years, high-technology advocates in agriculture have been predicting the development of more and more robotics for the farm field. The desire to automate labor intensive processes and improve the practice of farming through the use of robotic technology could, ideally, reduce cost and error in the production of crops.

Of course, low crop and input prices did little to drive development of robotics for several years, but as ag enters what looks to be a significant period of increased cost and increased reward, robotics is getting a second look.

At the 9th International Conference on Precision Agriculture in Denver, keynote speaker Simon Blackmore got the audience caught up on the state of robotic technology research and development. Blackmore has been working for several years in the development of robotics for agriculture, and currently serves as managing director of Europe-based Unibots Ltd. (www.unibots.com).

Over the years, machinery has continued to increase in size to allow farmers to farm larger and larger areas of land. The larger machinery is employed to help reduce labor cost and improve economies of scale, says Blackmore. One downside to this trend has been a higher cost of operation in increased capital cost. Agronomically, use of large machines also increases subsoil compaction.

In terms of field management, precision practices have allowed growers to “reduce” their fields to management grids or zones to make it easier to manage inputs and vary inputs and practices based on smaller field units. But in large scale crop production using currently available technology, bringing crop care down closer to the plant level is cost prohibitive.

Could in-the-field robotic technology be a future option? Blackmore says that field robots will afford growers the “opportunity to use technology that comes all the way down to plant scale husbandry.

“We can develop a new generation of machinery based on plant needs, run on biofuels produced on the farm, creating closed loop systems that reduce waste and on farm pollution,” he says.

Some of the key concepts surrounding robotics in ag include the following:

  • Many Vs. One. Rather than one large machine handling all tasks, robotic technology would employ multiple, small, highly intelligent machines that work longer hours, and work autonomously. One person might work as a “shepard” to watch a number of machines, but safety and reliability would be critical.
  • Understanding Its Place. Machines would be reinvented mechanically to be able to work alone, and to tend to individual plants, says Blackmore. “Systems would need to be light weight to avoid compaction, as well as small and autonomous. They would also have weather independence — they would know what time of year to put seed in the ground, and a robot would actually wait until the weather is right, and then go.
  • Graceful Degradation. With autonomous equipment, a catastrophic failure of equipment could be disastrous. Robotic equipment must be built so that a grower can recognize and correct problems, or replace equipment before it fails, a process Blackmore calls “graceful degradation.”

Knowing What To Do

If everything is set up correctly, the machine should know what to do once a field boundary is established. Given a field and set of circumstances and a task to do, the machine should be able to make the determination of when and where to go.

Why might robotics work in the future? One reason is higher costs. Blackmore pointed out that 90% of the energy used in cultivation is to undo the damage done by big equipment in the field. Smaller, efficient robots would reduce compaction damage and increase efficiency.

Another is reduced input use. Blackmore explained one robotic technology that recognizes weeds by plant shape as it moves through a field and only sprays weeds. “Through intelligent placement of product, we reduced application from 729 grams per hectare to 1 gram per hectare by spraying at the right time and place,” he says.

There’s still work to be done, but as global agriculture continues to experience high costs of production and high crop prices, technology like robotics will gain growing attention. Blackmore says that robots, like most technology developments, will find a home in the most highly repetitive and unpleasant tasks first.

Of course, there’s also the existing culture of ag to deal with the concept of unmanned field vehicles. One person at the end of the talk asked: “how can you get adoption when getting on a tractor is almost a religion for farmers? Isn’t this taking away the one pleasure left in farming?”

Blackmore agreed that there’s a cultural challenge to overcome, yet another factor for robots to address. But as automatic steering proved, if the technology is right and the payback makes sense, adoption will overcome culture.

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