The sixth annual FIRA robotics exhibition was run as a hybrid event at the end of 2021, with 36 robots presented both live at the venue in Toulouse in the south of France and online to more than 1,500 visitors.
The theme of the event was ‘When farmers take over robots’ and many of the workshops, roundtable discussions and pitches looked at how developments are advancing from the concept stage to a viable product which can be marketed to farmers or contractors.
Examples of how the industry is progressing are plain to see in host country France, with trade association Robagri boasting 71 member bodies, including research organisations, manufacturers and farmers.
One of its objectives is knowledge transfer and Robagri presented a scientific workshop in which Athens University’s Dr Spyros Fountas outlined developments in agricultural robotics for field operations following a study carried out by the university in collaboration with Wageningen University in the Netherlands and the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing, Engineering and Automation in Germany.
Research The study found that most developments are currently focused on high value crops, such as strawberries and grapes, with wheat and maize close behind.
Research is mainly targeting harvesting, weeding, crop scouting and multi-purpose autonomous systems.
Dr Fountas said: “Weeding robots address future needs such as reducing manual labour requirement by up to 40%, along with the high environmental impact of herbicides and potential yield losses of up to 60% from failing to control weeds.”
However, future needs include increased working area and speed for robots, early weed detection, the ability to target more weeds in more crops and compatibility with new and more sustainable cropping systems.
Harvesting robots offer the greatest potential for fruit crops where timing is key and labour requirement is high, said Dr Fountas.
“Future needs include improved fruit localisation and increasing picking speeds to compare with human pickers.
Crop cultivation systems and tree training may also have to be adapted.”
Multi-purpose robots, to carry out a range of tasks which may in themselves only be carried out once- or twice-a-year, are starting to emerge, he added.
“There are platforms with various integrated or demountable tools and modular robots in development, which use different sensors for each task.
They need to offer good performance for all tasks and a high level of modularity, while being adaptable for different tasks.
“Precision seeding using robots is also gaining ground, with accurate plant density contributing to high yields.
Most prototypes are focused on cereals.”
Automating spraying offers the opportunity for selective or spot spraying and reducing operator exposure, but low working speeds and adoption of real-time detection are limiting factors.
Detection “Faster detection speeds, more spraying coverage and capacity and greater autonomy will be needed,” said Dr Fountas.
Areas still in their infancy include disease and insect detection, which involves complex tasks and vision-based detection; crop scouting, with challenges in big data computing and automation of data processing; and plant management, an area with particular potential for tasks such as pruning in vineyard and protected crops.
Developers Taking robotic systems from the laboratory to the market is the challenge now facing many developers and Darcy Cook, general manager of JCA Technologies, a US-based company supplying customised tech solutions to original equipment manufacturers, addressed this issue in a session on ‘development of agricultural robots for scaled production’.
He explained that as developments cross from a customer base of early adopters to the majority, there is a ‘chasm’ where the offering not only needs to have a strong value proposition but also to be an effective and robust solution.
He said: “Success in the early phases does not necessarily translate to scaled production systems.
It requires robustness – which is not just reliability.
It is a combination of reliability, usability, diverse use and support.”
Mr Cook defined ‘usability’ as the ability to be used by a wide set of users of different skill levels and ‘diverse use’ as the ability to operate across many conditions and in applications additional to the primary intended workflow.
Support will also be key, he added: “This is the ability for system issues to be resolved quickly and efficiently as well as to support upgrades and improvements over the life of the system.”
This last point is clearly hitting home with many of the manufacturers and start-ups that presented their innovations at FIRA.
Some of the systems that we report on below are to be offered either on a lease basis or as an operated service in the initial phase of their commercial availability and beyond.
While this may be in part due to a reluctance – revealed in previous research – for farmers to invest heavily in new technology – it also offers the opportunity to build guaranteed specialist support into the package.