x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Future farming likely to feature invasion of field robots

Forget tractors. In the not-so-distant future, agricultural robots will work the land.

Forget tractors. In the not-so-distant future, agricultural robots will work the land, equipped with laser beams to zap weeds, inkjet-style precision sprayers to treat individual plants with exactly the right dose of fertilizer and cameras to monitor the growth of each seedling.

Professor Arno Ruckelshausen of the University of Osnabrück believes autonomous field robots could already be in use within five years.

“It’s the next step in a necessary automation in farming technology,” he says.

Prof Ruckelshausen estimates precision spraying could reduce the amount of chemicals used in farming by up to 80 per cent.

In cooperation with the engineering companies Robert Bosch and Amazonen-Werke, Prof Ruckelshausen has developed BoniRob, an agricultural robot on four wheels that can move over fields autonomously and record the features of every single plant on it to determine whether they have sufficient nutrients and moisture.

Packed with sensors and electronics as well as a 3D laser scanner, BoniRob can recognise gaps between rows and move without damaging plants.

“BoniRob can create a ‘fingerprint’ of every single plant,” says Prof. Ruckelshausen.

“Afterwards it can find the location of a certain plant and measure its features again. We can document the growth process of every plant in that way.”

BoniRob could be used to assist in plant breeding and agricultural experiments because it saves people having to make lengthy plant inspections. It could eventually be used to pluck weeds in carrot fields.

Researchers say the technology is already in place to enable gigantic tractors and combine harvesters to work the land automatically – without a farmer being present.

“Farming technology is much further ahead than automobile technology,” says Professor Thomas Herlitzius of the Dresden Technical University.

“The machines can already do everything, the driver just sits in the cabin. We just haven’t mastered the last security aspect.

“The driver still sits there because it’s more economical to let him supervise the operation than to invest in all the additional systems that would be needed to ensure the machine avoids all obstacles and dangers.”

In a further step towards automation, researchers are trying to develop miniscule robots to artificially pollinate plants and take over the work of bees, whose populations have been in decline in many parts of the world due to pesticides and infestations of parasitic mites.

As one might imagine, it is a challenge: researchers at Harvard University have built a RoboBee with a wingspan of just 3cm. However, it is still tethered to a power supply because designers have not yet worked out how to give it an autonomous power supply. And it does not yet have a brain. It is too small to fit a microchip that would enable it to make decisions.

Mechanical bees, agricultural robots and self-driving giant combine harvesters – some might say the romance is going out of farming.

But one day, the use of this new technology will radically change the way the countryside looks. Crops may be planted in grids rather than rows, the size of fields may decline and fruit trees may be pruned into more two-dimensional shapes to make it easier for machines to get the fruit of harvest them.

And that is not just the product of a fertile imagination.

business@thenational.ae