Robots are not only making agriculture more efficient, but also they are having a beneficial impact on the environment. A solar-powered weed-killing robot, for example, will help farmers cut down on the need for herbicides and genetically modified crops.
The EcoRobotix robot uses cameras and AI to detect weeds before applying a micro dose of herbicide. The robot’s Swiss manufacturer says it uses 20 times less herbicide than traditional methods, as it eliminates the need to spray entire fields.
Switzerland’s weed terminator will hit the shops in 2019. Meanwhile, the US-based Blue River Technology has created “See & Spray” technology for weeding fields of crops.
The American robots too are fitted with cameras and uses libraries of images to spot the difference between plants and weeds. Machine learning capability means they will learn and improve as they operate.
The widening use over the next decade of autonomous hybrid or fully electric tractors, robotic machinery and drones looks set to increase farm efficiency and revolutionize the way food is produced.
Factors promoting the take‑up of agricultural robotics include the promise of increased productivity and efficiency, falling costs of self‑driving technology, reduced availability and rising costs of farm labour, and the need to produce more food for a growing global population while crop yields fall in many regions as a result of climate change.
Automatic and robotic vehicles and mobile devices are already used for seeding, planting and tillage, picking and harvesting, weeding, sorting and packaging, and even for pruning vines. A few strawberry harvesters are being trialled commercially, while robotic harvesting of apples is in the late stages of prototyping.
These lightweight agricultural robots (agribots) are capable of working day and night and in poor weather. They can also collect and transmit real-time data on the state of fields and crops, find diseases or parasites and spray pesticides.
Typically, agribots are based on some form of robotic tractor implement platform, wheeled or belt‑driven, and many are powered by electric batteries, motors and drivetrains.
Depending on the robot’s function, on‑board sensors may include biological (including chemical and gas analyzers), water, meteorological, soil respiration or moisture, photosynthesis or Leaf Area Index (LAI) sensors, as well as weed detectors, dendrometers and hygrometers. Other components range from cameras and wireless communications to robotic arms, lights for night‑time operation and solar panels to recharge batteries.
The rise in the use of robotics is transforming agriculture, an industry worth $5 trillion and representing 10% of global consumer spending, 40 percent of employment and 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Much of this would not be possible without the standardization work of IEC Technical Committee (TCs) and Subcommittees (SCs) in key areas such as the performance of cameras and sensing technology used in agricultural robots. For more details, see the e-tech article, ‘Farming (r)evolution‘.
For a wider look at the world of smart farming, read ‘Texting cows and talking fields‘.