As featured in Arable Farming Magazine
Designing robots for local requirements
by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue
Farmers will have the opportunity to work alongside scientists to develop robots for agriculture as part of a new industry– focused initiative.
Few people will have heard of the UK National Robotarium – and you might wonder what on earth it is and does.
Launched this autumn at Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, it’s a 10,000sq.m, £22.4 million centre aiming to develop practical robotic solutions for industry, including agriculture.
Explaining how it will work, Dr Fernando Auat Cheein, the specialist heading up its approach to agriculture, says he is keen to hear from people involved in farming.
In his role as associate professor in robotics and autonomous systems, his mission is to engage directly with the agricultural sector to understand the problems facing farmers and to share knowledge on the benefits of adopting sensing technology and robotics.
“Our work [across all sectors] will be informed by industry needs and by collaborating we can help solve problems.
I’ve worked with many universities around the world and this is the first one I am aware of where there is a specialist link with industry and where people in the sector can be here working with us.”
Dr Auat has a long history of involvement in robotics in agriculture (see panel), having worked with growers around the world to develop technology which has helped address various issues.
However, he believes there is scope to do far more with robots and to help solve some of the issues facing agriculture.
“The world is facing an urgent need to develop technology for agriculture.
It is one of the oldest industries but technology [for it] evolves really slowly.
Now there is an urgent need to have sustainable processes and to take care of land, crops, livestock, biodiversity, forestry and emissions – many factors which, 30 years ago, we were not aware of.
“Robots can be used to reduce waste, to increase the amount of farmable space and to optimise the use of available space, and they can work 24/7.”
Increasing farmable land is possible as robots are likely to require less working space than tractors and other machinery, he says.
“Instead of fields with 60 crop rows, you could have 120 or more, making much better use of available land.”
However, he adds robots will not replace people, which is a concern that some may have.
“The idea is to have a sustainable industry – and we don’t currently have enough labour for our needs, especially as people across all countries and cultures continue to migrate to cities.”
So far, he believes drones have been one of the biggest successes in terms of robots in agriculture, but most are just gathering data, which then requires software, and often a PhD, for detailed analysis.
His first development, based on discussions so far, is to design a robot which will carry out automated harvesting of any crop which is grown in ‘walls’ or rows, such as apples, oranges, pears and potentially cherries.
“This will be the first fully automated harvesting robot in the UK which will interact with almost any type of crop grown in this way.”
The base vehicle for the machine is expected to arrive soon – this is the only part of the robot which will be purchased as it is much cheaper to do this than to develop one from scratch.
After its arrival, work will start to develop and build the harvesting robot.
He says it has been a challenging time to consider building due to the global computer chip shortage, but he expects it to be complete and ready for work by spring.
However, he believes it will be three to five years before robots which do more than very specific tasks are available and he is also interested in the business models for running robots in agriculture.
“The business model for robots in agriculture is not clear – they are very expensive.”
When asked what success would look like for robots in agriculture, Dr Auat says affordability is key.
“The technology has to be affordable by farmers.”
Minimising environmental impacts is also important and he says their productivity is critical.
Sectors where one crop is grown in consistent environmental conditions, such as vertical farming, are likely to reap the benefits first, he adds.
“Farmers are likely to want robots which will do every task from drilling to harvesting, and so far there have been prototypes which do only one thing.
“Currently, ground robots are expensive and usually need a PhD to operate.
But if we look at drones, they only need an operator permit plus some software and skills to look at the data they generate.
I believe that in three to five years’ time, we will have robots which are as easy to use as drones – the technology needs to be farmer-friendly.”
Like drones, the robots will be collecting data and will be driven by it too.
For crops such as fruit, he believes robots will know how much there is to harvest and where, so will be able to plan harvest in a much more efficient way.
“I think they will be having a positive impact and will benefit society.
People will be monitoring them and making decisions, managing the high-level work, but robots will be doing a lot of the work such as planting, monitoring, spraying and harvesting crops.”
And while he acknowledges crops such as fruit are a good opportunity for robot use, other crops will benefit from their ability to monitor health and harvest potential among other things.
“They will allow you to use sensors to make data-driven decisions.”
The key will be to design robots for local requirements, he says.
“This is why conversations are so important.
We need to speak to farmers and the agricultural industry – talking is the first and mandatory step in everything we do.
I need to understand the problems and to then think about the appropriate solution.
Opinions “We really want to show farmers what we can do and they are welcome to come to see us at the National Robotarium.
It is always better to be able show how things work, rather than do just a Powerpoint presentation, and it can sometimes change people’s opinions and views about robots.
“The idea of the Robotarium is to provide solutions to industry and I want to invite farmers to have conversations with us so we can think about and design appropriate solutions for their problems.”
Dr Auat’s career
Dr Fernando Auat Cheein is an associate professor in robotics and autonomous systems at the UK National Robotarium, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh.
He has published more than 100 journal articles, two books, several conference papers and has applied for (and been granted) several patents.
He is associate editor of four journals, including Computers and Electronics in Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering.
His graduates are academics or researchers at universities around the world, including the University of Lincoln, Carnegie Mellon University and UC Davis in the United States of America, plus several universities in Chile and Ecuador.
His research interests are robotics/mechatronics and perception in agriculture, electrically powered machinery, motion control systems and remote sensing applied to biosystems.
He is currently recruiting new PhD students.
Robots present new challenges
A Rabobank report released in October concluded that growers will not produce food more cheaply because of robotisation and digitalisation like the GrowFrame system, but differently.
Thanks to high intelligence technology, managing larger, more international companies will become easier, management skills will change, and the co-operation with suppliers and customers will become closer, it found.
Value Pests can also be dealt with earlier, more sustainably and more precisely, and the quality of the final product may also improve.
However, the potential value of this is difficult to estimate.
There are also potential drawbacks to robotisation and digitalisation, it found, including the growing dependence on large software companies, cyber risks, less flexibility, negative consumer perception, and less diversity of companies and products.