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Where next for robotics?

Although research into automation of farming tasks is gathering pace, getting it into the field on a commercial scale remains a challenge. Marianne Curtis visited Harper Adams University to find out more

 

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Professor Simon Blackmore
Professor Simon Blackmore

 

While developments in disciplines such as biotechnology have increasingly been applied to agriculture in recent years, mechanisation has been ‘totally ignored’.

 

That is the view of Professor Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University, Newport, Shrops. “When you look at all the technologies available – Wi Fi, computers, LIDAR and GPS – we need to look at how we can best use these technologies in agriculture.

 

“Tractors over the last 60 years have big wheels at the back and small wheels at the front; they are heavy metal dragging machines through soil. Driverless tractors show a lack of forethought. Everything is getting bigger. We don’t need to have these big tractors anymore.”

 

Large tractors and machinery are damaging soil and 90% of energy going into cultivation is to repair this damage, argues Prof Blackmore. “It is cultivate, damage, cultivate, damage every year – crazy.”

 

While he accepts that for large farms, big tractors and machinery are an efficient way of covering a lot of ground quickly, smaller, smarter machines offer farms with smaller fields a chance to improve productivity, he says. “Small to medium sized farms have the greatest potential for improvement.”

 

Spray drones

 

Prof Blackmore is also working with the Civil Aviation Authority and Chemicals Regulation Directorate on testing of spray drones to enable them to meet legislative requirements. In China, testing of seeding drones to sow paddy rice has been carried out, he adds. “In Asia, many fields are one acre. Small machines can work one acre which would make Asia significantly more efficient.”

 

As well as drones, projects using ground based machinery are also underway at Harper Adams, including an autonomous lawn mower, robotic strawberry harvesting and laser weeding.

 

“When we build robots they can be made of mass produced parts such as gear boxes from lawnmowers,” says Prof Blackmore. “They don’t need specialist equipment. We are talking £20,000-£30,000 for a functioning system.”

 

He defines a functioning system as a machine doing a particular agronomic task.

 

Using a ride-on lawn mower as the basis for a robotic machine, so-called ‘smarts’, which comprise computer systems, software and sensors, are added to achieve automation. One such machine, known as Norman, was fitted with a small sprayer tank for a student project.

 

“Norman is a light vehicle and can go out at field capacity – we’ve had it running at field capacity here. It exerts a pressure of less than 40kPa and can do operations when the weather is bad,” explains Prof Blackmore.

 

While most farmers would consider the spray tank very small scale, Prof Blackmore believes the whole question of how inputs are applied needs revisiting. “We need a more flexible and efficient crop production system with intelligently targeted inputs,” he says.

 

Intelligently targeted inputs means using the minimum amount of input required to achieve the desired outcome.

 

Use of microdroplets applied directly to plant leaves is one area that could offer large reductions in chemical volumes required to kill weeds, he explains. “A camera has been developed that can identify 26 weed species. We could develop a machine that positions chemical only on to the leaf of weeds saving 99.99 per cent of chemical by volume. At the moment you have to spread the chemical everywhere.

 

“Chemical companies have a whole range of active ingredients that can’t be used because of the legislation tied up in how they are applied.”

 

Laser weeding

 

Weeds are also being tackled with lasers at Harper Adams University where a machine uses a camera to recognise weeds and the meristem (growing part of the plant). The laser destroys the meristem by heating it to 95degC. Cell walls rupture and the plant becomes dormant or dies. The power required is 40W, less than a headlight bulb, says Prof Blackmore.

 

Field tests of this technology are underway on high value row crops and the university is looking to commercialise it.

 

Another technique close to commercialisation is robotic strawberry harvesting. The harvesting of high value row crops offers significant potential for waste reduction, believes Prof Blackmore. “For example with lettuce 20-60 per cent of the crop is thrown away at the point of harvest because shoppers pick the best looking lettuce.”

 

Developing a machine which only harvests marketable crop, leaving behind smaller lettuces, for example, would minimise waste. “Smaller lettuces could be left behind with the machine coming back next week – a phased harvesting,” says Prof Blackmore.

 

There is also the labour saving potential of such technology to consider, particularly post-Brexit, when immigrant labour may be less available, he adds. “Some of the highly repetitive, semi-skilled labour tasks would be replaced. Some of the machines will inevitably replace seasonal labour. But big tractors have already displaced people in the rural workforce.

 

“The minimum wage has gone up seven per cent. Farmers who use this labour have had to take it on the chin as supermarkets won’t accept prices going up by seven per cent. With Brexit likely to lead to more immigration controls the reality is that getting hold of seasonal labour will be harder in the future. Some growers say it is the biggest risk to their business.”

 

Future roles

 

Future farm job descriptions may also change with developing automation, says Prof Blackmore. “Where you currently have a manager and tractor driver, in the future you may have a manager and robot operator. In terms of practical tasks, you won’t be hanging on to the steering wheel anymore.”

 

While some areas of automation are close to commercialisation, changing the status quo is a challenge, admits Prof Blackmore. “I’ve been developing this for the last 25 years, all working with companies but very little has made it into the commercial sector so we’ll just have to set up our own companies.”

 

One possible business model could be for companies to service farmers with high tech, he suggests. “The service company will be learning what they can do and use this knowledge on multiple farms whereas the farmer can only use it on his own farm. To help development move faster we need to de-risk some of the opportunities for farmers to invest in that service.”

 

While some may fear the capital investment required to take advantage of automation may be too great, Prof Blackmore says it need not necessarily be any more than the sums invested in conventional tractors and machinery.

 

“A new combine can cost £250,000 and tractors cost many thousands. When farmers buy a 150 horsepower tractor, how often is 150 horsepower used? Farmers invest huge amounts of money and don’t necessarily get good value.”

 

Questions over reliability may also be a barrier for some, however, Prof Blackmore envisages dealing with breakdowns being no more complicated than with existing machinery. “You don’t need a PhD to operate it. Some things farmers are used to dealing with such as changing tyres or refilling. Some things the manufacturer will need to deal with but just because it is a robot it won’t necessarily cost more.”

 

More demonstration of the technology in the field may be the key to increasing uptake, believes Prof Blackmore. “We need to demonstrate it more. That’s why we’ve set up hands free hectare. No-one will go into that crop for a year.”

Hands-free hectare  

Hands-free hectare  

 

  • Members of Harper Adams University engineering staff, supported and led by precision farming specialist Precision Decisions, are attempting to grow and harvest a hectare of cereal crops without stepping into the field in 2017.
  • Using small-scale machinery already available on the market and adapting it in the university’s engineering labs for the autonomous field work.
  • Drilling a spring cereal crop in March, using remote agronomy and autonomous application of required inputs with harvesting in August and September.
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