Inventors behind automated milking system eye up major award

The robot enables the animals to decide when and how often they want to be milked, with no human input required
The robot enables the animals to decide when and how often they want to be milked, with no human input required

Two Dutch inventors have been nominated for the European Inventor Award for their fully automated milking system that benefits both cows and farmers.

Engineers Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg's 'cow-friendly' automation aims to make farming operations more efficient.

The system is being commercialised worldwide and currently works with farmers in over 40 countries.

The key feature of their invention is that it allows cows to wander into the milking pen when they are ready to be milked.

It resembles a large box with metal bars on one side, and a robotic arm underneath the cow controls the entire milking process.

The arm houses sensors that ensure the milking machine is locked onto the cows' udders seamlessly, so that they can be milked efficiently.

The scanning technology also eliminates unnecessary arm movements for gentler handling of the cow.

This system is called the Astronaut as the cows are connected to high-tech machinery but still remain free, similar to an astronaut on a spacewalk.

The Astronaut's use goes beyond milking as it provides farmers with a valuable tool for data collection and analysis.

The system scans a collar on the cow and stores relevant data, such as her milk production and feeding habits.

This data is then fed into a software programme where it is analysed, helping farmers monitor and manage their herds more efficiently - for example, giving an early warning if a cow might be sick.

European Inventor Award

The European Patent Office (EPO) announced that the engineering duo have been nominated for the European Inventor Award 2019 as finalists in the category 'Industry' for their milking system.

“The system developed by two Dutch inventors demonstrates how high-tech advances can sustainably assist the agricultural sector,” said EPO President António Campinos.

“And they have enhanced market uptake by licensing their technology, building a company that is competitive on a global stage.”

Van den Berg studied electrical engineering in Rotterdam but grew up on a farm and knew that for robotic milking to be successful, it would need to be accepted by the cows as being part of the barn.

“I started from the principle that the cow needs freedom within the milking pen; it should not be fixed or restrained,” he says, adding that “when a cow feels good, has no stress and is offered everything – that's when it produces the most milk.”

Van der Lely has been named as an inventor on 47 European patents for advances in milking and agricultural automation, and over his 35-year career, van den Berg has been named as an inventor on 267 European patents, many of which have equivalents in other territories too.

Some 25 of these patents he shares in common with Alexander van der Lely.

The winners of this year's EPO annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Vienna, Austria on 20 June.