Agriculture is the oldest industry in human history. Thousands of years ago, mankind began domesticating crops and livestock. At first with their bare hands and simple tools, later with more sophisticated and bigger industrial machines and today with the help of robots.
The main area of application of robots in agriculture is at the harvesting stage. At Cambridge University, researchers have developed a robotic system, called Vegebot, that uses machine-learning to identify and harvest iceberg lettuce; a simple, but back-breaking task for a human, however extremely difficult for a robot. Lettuce grows on the ground and can be easily damaged by mechanical harvesters. Although, nowhere as fast or efficient as a human at present, in the future Vegebots might relieve humans from this dull and physical drudgery on the fields. (University of Cambridge, 2019).
From machine learning in the lab, the Vegebot knows how to recognise healthy and ripe lettuce. It is deployed with an overhead camera to take pictures of the lettuces and a cutting system with a second camera near the cutting blade (University of Cambridge, 2019).
In animal farming, SwagBot is the first prototype to do cattle work 24/7 in all terrain and all weather. The four-wheeled robot herder is battery-operated and with all-wheel drive able to room without too much effort across large, rugged areas. Developed by the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at Sydney University, It was first tested in 2016 and over the years enhanced with sensors so that it can monitor the condition of cows in the field on a regular basis and be used for weed removal and yield counting (Bogle, 2016). Soon, it will have the ability to autonomously herd cattle. (New Atlas, 2019).
We can also see an interesting development in agricultural drones. Researchers from ULB University in Brussels and Tre University in Rome are working on an autonomous drone that equipped with a camera should help determine irrigation needs, find pest or diseases and predict the harvest from the sky. They will be able to augment the production quality whilst minimalising the environmental impact. These robots would not replace human workers, but would take care of some tedious tasks and cut down on pollution and waste (Robots, drones and the future of farming, 2019).
The three ‘agribots’ described above, are examples of mobile, autonomous and intelligent robotic systems that one day will work alongside farmers to help to tackle pressing problems, such as the growing global shortage of food and labour (RBR Staff, 2018).
Bogle, A. (2016). The SwagBot is an all-terrain robot that will soon be running the farm. [Online} Mashable. Available at: https://mashable.com/2016/07/13/swagbot-agriculture-robot-australia/?europe=true [Accessed 19 Mar. 2020].
NASA. (2011). R5. [Online] Available at: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/r5 [Accessed 21/03/2020]
New Atlas. (2019). SwagBot autonomous agricultural robot to hit the farmers market in 2020. [online] Available at: https://newatlas.com/agerris-swagbot-digital-farmhand/59239/ [Accessed 19 Mar. 2020].
RBR Staff (2018). 4 Ways Robotics Will Affect Agriculture in 2019. [online] Robotics Business Review. Available at: https://www.roboticsbusinessreview.com/agriculture/4-ways-robotics-change-agriculture-in-2019/ [Accessed 23 March 2020]
Robots, drones and the future of farming. (2019). YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LshPd-TL6j4 [Accessed 19 Mar. 2020].
University of Cambridge. (2019). Robot uses machine learning to harvest lettuce. [Online] Available at: https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/robot-uses-machine-learning-to-harvest-lettuce [Accessed 23 March 2020].