the European agricultural industry at the dawn of a new robotic revolution

In the province of Zeeland, Netherlands, a robot moves through fields of sunflowers, shallots and onions. A machine that autonomously and tirelessly destroys, day after day.

“Farmdroid” makes life easier for Mark Buijze, the head of an organic farm with 50 cows and 15 hectares of land. Mr Buijze is one of the very few agricultural robot owners in Europe.

Robots to the rescue!

His electronic farm worker is equipped with GPS. Multifunction, it can go from weeding to sowing. Mr. just needs Buijze press a button to enter the coordinates and Farmdroid will take care of the rest.

“Thanks to the robot, weeding can be done in one or two days, while by hand it would occupy four to five workers for several weeks”, he explained. “The machine can determine, thanks to GPS, the exact place where it should intervene in the field. »

The end of gathering and the beginning of agriculture, about 12,000 years ago, greatly improved the quality of life of the populations. There are few sectors whose history is as rich as agriculture, which has evolved over the centuries to the rhythm of technological progress.

However, the agricultural sector has been slow to adopt one of the major technological trends in recent years: artificial intelligence (AI). Commonly used in various forms from chatbots and facial recognition to vehicle braking and warehouse management, AI is still in its infancy in agriculture.

Today, advances in research are prompting farmers to turn to robots that can perform all kinds of tasks normally assigned to farm workers or quickly detect crop diseases.

Economical and ecological

For French agronomist Bertrand Pinel, European agriculture needs to use robots more intensively to be productive, competitive and ecological, three priority objectives of the EU for a sector that generates around 190 billion euros per year .

The use of robots is particularly explained by the need to abandon the use of herbicides by performing weeding in the old fashioned way, mechanical weeding, a task that is not only tiring but also painful and long. The frequent lack of workers available to cut vines is another motivation to equip themselves with robots.

“In both cases, robots will provide important assistance,” said Mr. Pinel, head of research and development projects at Terrena Innovation, a French company. “This is our vision of the future of agriculture in Europe. »

With Mr. Pinel on the project ROBS4CROPSfunded by the EU, mobilizing 50 experts and 16 institutional partners, and offering novel robotic technology used in partner farms in the Netherlands, Greece, Spain and France.

“This initiative is quite innovative,” commented Frits van Evert, project coordinator. “It’s big first. »

The end of the grass

In agriculture, AI looks attractive for tasks that need to be repeated throughout the year, such as weeding, said Evert, a senior researcher in precision agriculture at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“In the case of a crop like potatoes, sowing is usually done once a year in spring and harvesting in autumn, but sowing should be repeated between six and ten times a year”he explained.

Not to mention the speed of the robots. Machines often work faster than any human.

Francisco Javier Nieto De Santos, project coordinator FLEXIGROBOTS funded by the EU, was particularly impressed with a prototype robot that takes soil samples. When done by hand, this operation requires special care to avoid contamination, then requires sending the sample to the laboratory and waiting several days for the results.

“This robot allows you to do everything in the field,” said Mr. De Santos. “It can take multiple samples per hour and provide results in minutes. »

Eventually, he added, the benefits of these technologies will extend beyond the world of agriculture and the general public, through the ability to increase overall food production.

A manual task that does not find takers

Agricultural robots can be called because of their ability to work faster than a person, but also because of the lack of manpower available to do this work.

Even before inflation and fertilizer prices start to rise in 2021, amid energy shortages in Ukraine, European farmers are already facing another problem: finding enough labor, and especially seasonal workers.

“Labor is one of the main problems in the agricultural sector,” said Mr. Evert. ” It is expensive and hard to find these days, because few people want to work in agriculture. We are convinced that robots, and in particular autonomous tractors, can be the solution to the problem. »

The ROBS4CROPS project aims to develop a robotic system to retrofit existing agricultural equipment so that it can work in tandem with agricultural robots.

For the system to work, researchers must first tag raw data, such as images or videos, so that AI can read them.

driverless tractors

The system then uses this wealth of information to make “smart” decisions and make predictions, much like the automatic corrector on laptops and mobile phones.

An agricultural control system, which can be considered the “brain” of operations, determines what to do next or how much work to do, where the work needs to be done, all based on information from maps or instructions provided by the farmer.

Machinery, whether autonomous tractors or smart tools like weeders equipped with sensors and cameras, collect and store more information as they are used, becoming more “smart”.

Protected crops

Based in Spain, FLEXIGROBOTS is on a mission to make it easier for farmers to use existing robots for many tasks, including disease detection.

Take the example of drones. With their ability to detect a diseased plant from the air, these devices can help farmers identify diseased crops early and prevent a wider infestation.

“If you don’t detect diseases at an early stage, you can lose an entire field, an entire year’s production,” said De Santos. “Our only solution is to remove the infected plant. »

For example, there is no cure for mold, a type of fungus. Therefore, it is very important to identify and remove diseased plants quickly.

Sharing information is key to making the whole system smarter, De Santos explained. Sharing data collected by drones with robots or integrating this information into models makes these machines more “intelligent”.

Even though Mr. Pinel, agronomist, that one day agriculture will be completely dependent on robotics, it will certainly change it.

“We hope that one day farmers can just put some small robots in the fields and let them work all day,” he said.

The research for this article was funded by the EU. This document was originally published onHorizonthe EU magazine dedicated to research and innovation.

More information

To find out more about the EU-funded projects mentioned in this article, follow the links below.

ROBS4CROPS

FLEXIGROBOTS

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