FarmTech: Robotics and Autonomous Vehicles

April 25, 2019

Cereals can cope with some rough handling making them suitable for the types of robotic harvesting outlined above. However, what about fruit which not only needs careful handling but also the expert eye of a human to assess its ripeness?

The current speed is one tomato every six seconds, which is slightly slower than humans, but it has the advantage of being able to work all day every day.

Simon Sherrington, MD

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While remaining a challenge for roboticists there are a number of companies working on systems which pick soft fruits and vegetables such as strawberries and tomatoes. Based in Spain, Agrobot is one of those companies, and in addition to assessing ripeness and picking, can even remove the stem or calyx from a strawberry. Its E-Series harvester uses LiDAR-based navigation to move along the strawberry rows picking off ripe fruit with its 24 robotic arms; each fruit is then deposited in boxes arranged under the robotic hands. The harvester uses graphics processor units (GPUs) and 3D computer vision (based on infra-red depth sensors and short-range colour sensors) to assess whether individual strawberries are ready to pick.

Japanese company Panasonic is concerned with the demographic issues facing the East Asian nation. It is particularly concerned with the lack of farm labour this causes and the growing lack of sufficiency in the Japanese food market. It believes that robots could be the answer to some of the problems Japan, and the rest of the world, faces. It has invented a tomato picking robot – tomatoes being one of the most labour-intensive fruits to farm. Its bots have been trialled in intelligent greenhouses that monitor and adjust levels of temperature, humidity, light, water, fertiliser and carbon dioxide to optimise plant growth and yield. According to the trial farm’s manager, harvesting the tomatoes traditionally accounts for 20% of the entire work load: 35,000 hours. The robot is attached to a rail that follows the edge of the tomato plant rows. It moves along the rows and uses a camera with image recognition to see which tomatoes are ready for harvesting. Those that are deemed ready are gently lassoed and cut from the stem from where they fall gently into a bucket below. The current speed is one tomato every six seconds, which is slightly slower than humans, but it has the advantage of being able to work all day every day.

Another Japanese company, Yanmar, has recently released an autonomous tractor. The ‘Robot Tractor’ can autonomously perform functions such as turning at the end of a row in forward drive mode and also in reverse. The autonomous vehicle can be controlled through a 10-inch tablet allowing operators to remotely drive two tractors at the same time. There is also the option to retrofit the autonomous gear to an existing tractor. Yanmar states that it plans to sell 100 tractors per year.

The hope for autonomous vehicles on the farm is not only automating the process but also increasing yield through a fleet of lighter vehiclesworking fields, rather than one heavy, human-driven machine that causes greater soil compaction and reduces yield by 13%.

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