Tech UPTechnologyThis is how robots weed organic farms

This is how robots weed organic farms

These robots can take on arduous tasks and help farmers save time. By detecting diseases or pests early on, they can help reduce pesticide use and reduce plant losses.

In Europe, land for agriculture is shrinking in part due to urbanization. Meanwhile, there is a need for greener and more sustainable food production that uses fewer agrochemicals, which are expensive and can pollute waterways. Alternatives to industrial monoculture agriculture include small, organic farms, market gardens, which sell products directly to consumers or restaurants, as well as commercial greenhouses.

But small farmers struggle with backbreaking manual labor. And machine companies that make expensive machines for large farms to grow and harvest individual crops have traditionally ignored the needs of small producers.

However, researchers are now discovering ways to help small farmers be more productive and profitable in the long run.


Farm Helper Robot

“Micro farms are profitable and economically sustainable, but producers often struggle after about four years, as people develop back problems,” said Jonathan Minchin at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, who leads a project called ROMI that built A Farm Helper Robot.

The “ROMI” with traveling wheels has an arm for weeding small vegetable farms . Organic farmers spend about a fifth of their time removing weeds, Minchin says, so developing a robot that can relieve people of this task was a key goal.

‘This robot is made for small farms, not big farms. There is a great need for this type of tool, ‘says Christophe Godin, director of research in plant modeling and informatics at Inria (the French National Research Institute in Digital Science and Technology), who is also involved in the project. .

To benefit small farmers, the robot had to be inexpensive and lightweight. ROMI developers worked to keep its costs low by outfitting it with electric wheelchair motors and relying on open source hardware and software for artificial intelligence and navigation, for example. Once available, it should cost € 5,000 or less.


Computational agriculture

Right now, a ROMI robot is being tested to weed and navigate an organic farm in a forest on the outskirts of Barcelona. A brother robot is weeding at a commercial organic farm called Pépinières Chatelain near the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris.

As market gardens and small farms produce a mix of crops, Minchin says “computational farming” will allow robots to manage a complex variety of vegetable and fruit crops, growing at different speeds and at different heights.

Project scientists use a large amount of imagery and AI map data to identify and model plants.

Dr. Godin and computer scientist Dr. Peter Hanappe, from the Sony Computer Science Laboratories in Paris, are working with the weeding robot in France. It has visual software that allows you to capture 2D images.

Once you take a photograph, you must interpret “this pixel soup,” explains Godin.

These images are used to create 3D computer models that the robot then uses to better understand or manipulate its environment. They want to teach the robot to understand what a leaf, a stem, a fruit, etc. is.

Dr. Godin wants to improve computer image analysis so that plant scientists can use the data collected by the robot to study crop varieties in growth experiments. 3D plant models can also be used to program robots for precise fruit picking or for better crops in the future. It can also allow scientists, and ultimately farmers, to track the health and growth of crops.

In the future, a ROMI could see the lettuce start to skyrocket and know when it’s time to harvest, Minchin says. Or the technology could allow a new generation of agricultural robots to identify and pick fruits or vegetables when they are ripe.




For farmers who grow a mixture of vegetables and fruits, another option is a greenhouse, which protects against inclement weather and disease.

“Greenhouses are ideal places to grow plants, but the main drawback is that once pests get in, they reproduce very quickly,” said María Campo-Cossío Gutiérrez at the CTC Technology Center in Spain, who leads a project called GreenPatrol . Once a pest or disease enters the greenhouse, it can cause losses of up to 25% for growers.

Campo-Cossío Gutiérrez and his team developed a prototype of an intelligent roaming robot to patrol greenhouses and identify and identify when there are pests or diseases. The robot can work autonomously, without human intervention.

The robot was trained on the main pests and diseases of tomato and pepper, as they are higher value crops, and is being tested in greenhouses in northern Spain. Farmers can access an online application to view the status of the robot and a map of healthy and infected areas with recommended actions.

“One of the main challenges is that the robot is in a (semi) indoor environment,” he said.

If you were outside, you could use satellite navigation, but the greenhouses have roofs with metal reinforcement, which degrades the signals.

Another challenge is that greenhouses change regularly as the crop grows, but also after harvests, when growing materials such as soil are removed. Because of this, robots cannot be programmed to follow defined routes.

“We needed the robot to identify where the pests are and then come back and treat them in a second phase,” Campo-Cossío Gutiérrez said. With the farmer’s instructions, the robot has the ability to spray the plant with pesticide.

The GreenPatrol robot uses novel algorithms that allow it to successfully exploit stronger signals from Galileo global navigation satellites, as well as orientation sensors and lasers to help guide its maneuvers under the greenhouse roof. You can get a position inside the greenhouse with an accuracy better than 30 cm.


The robot uses AI and image libraries to detect invaders from pests and also harmless insects. “It is able to distinguish the degree of infestation and tell whether it is an egg, or a larva, or a complete adult insect,” said Campo-Cossío Gutiérrez.

You can then send producers real-time heatmap updates of insect infestations to their smartphones.

Flight companion

Rover robots are not the only solution for producers. The ROMI project has also developed a flight companion for its rover: a drone that can scan plants from the air. ROMI scientists also built a cable robot to slide through crops and do similar work.

The ROMI team finally envisions their design not as a single weeding robot, but as a platform to which farmers can connect sensors, cameras and tools and then remove them again.

‘You can imagine a farmer who gets up in the morning and goes to the tool shed. Put tools in the robot and turn it on, “says Minchin.

This robot could start weeding or scanning for pests. If the farmer wants to see the information, he can look at his phones or later that day on a home computer.

Original article

 This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine

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