With reported agricultural labour shortages all over the world and demographics showing the average age of farmers steadily climbing, complacency about the security of our food production isn’t an option, the delegates to the European Robotics Forum 2012 were told.
In tandem with this future uncertainty, in the Developed World at least, there are growing concerns about product quality and safety, as well as the environmental impact of agriculture.
"Until now, thanks to a reliance on large scale, mechanised agriculture combined with cheap labour in emerging economies, the routine deployment of robotics has been confined to a small number of specific tasks, such as milking, feed distribution and farm cleaning", explained Prof. Simon Blackmore, head of Engineering at Harper Adams University College.
"Earlier attempts to build complex robots capable of using virtual sight to, for example, harvest difficult to handle or delicate crops met with the conclusion that such robots were not sufficiently robust, were too slow and too expensive."
Robot researchers found that the combination of human hand eye co-ordination, dextrous manipulation and advanced object recognition was desirable, but simply too challenging. With support from the EURON and EUROP robotic networks, the Forum saw the founding of EARN, the Euro Agri Robotics Network.
"We’ve started with a clean sheet of paper", commented Blackmore. "We’re re-evaluating the whole approach to agriculture. At the moment, crops are drilled in straight rows to suit machines, but what if they were drilled to follow the contours of the land, or to take account of the micro level environmental conditions within a portion of a field? The potential boost to production we could generate if harvests were staggered to suit the crop rather than mechanisation is immense. We’re talking about micro tillage, mechanical weeding and planting using small, smart, autonomous, modular machines."
Delegates at the Forum saw demonstrator multi task robots from The Universities of Copenhagen, South Denmark, Wageningen and Kaiserslautern and the research institute of WUR in The Netherlands in action.
One application was the robotic Crop Scout, a monitoring platform capable of measuring crops and checking for disease. Currently, farmers routinely use pesticide and herbicide as a prophylactic and spray their crops whether pests or disease are present. Trials with the Crop Scout resulted in a 98% reduction in the amount of spray used, as the Robotic Sprayer sent by the Crop Scout treated only the small area affected by disease or pests.
The new generation of agricultural robots have notched up some impressive trial results already. Though much smaller than typical farm machinery, they can act co-operatively and carry out tasks such as spraying with a boom. Lasers are used for multiple tasks, from harvesting to weeding.
Tractor operations like ploughing, disking and harrowing always create soil compaction and also typically move over 65% of the field area while operating. Yet studies show that 90% of cultivation energy is used to repair damage caused by tractors.
"The obvious conclusion is we must stop running tractors on land wherever possible", said Blackmore. "The new generation of lightweight robots will move on wide, low pressure tyres and only cultivate the minimum volume of soil to create the required seed environment. Seeds will be precisely placed, according to soil moisture levels. Their movements will be controlled by SAFAR (Software Architecture for Agricultural Robots) and routes will be planned via Google Earth.
These demonstrators have also proved themselves capable of selective harvesting, enabling farmers to grow a higher quality of crop, as those plants that still need time to grow, are left in the field.
"Unlike industries like aerospace, agriculture is a low margin industry, so it is vital that these new robots are both robust and affordable. Realistically, they are bound to be put to work on high value crops to begin with – there have already been trials on sensors designed to artificially "smell" ripeness. Agriculture twenty years from now will be a mix of the traditional and the new, but the new robots will be intelligent enough to work with the natural environment to maintain both economic competitiveness and sustainable, high quality food production."