Small companies and startups are having the biggest initial impact as work on autonomous platforms continues
The march of the robots into agricultural fields continues.
Major OEMs are well into the development of autonomous platforms, but the relatively small companies and startups are having the biggest initial impact.
The electric utility tractor by Monarch will be available to Canadian farmers this year and it has interesting autonomous capability that may turn out to be an affordable entry point for many farmers in Canada.
The DOT robotic platform that was recently purchased by Raven is already in the hands of a few farmers and researchers, and the company also offers a product called AutoCart that turns existing grain cart tractors into robots.
There is another model that promises to bring robots to agricultural fields and it bypasses the need for producers to buy and maintain these autonomous systems.
Aside from drone-based imagery companies, the first agricultural service company I came across that uses robotic-field robots is Rogo Ag’s SmartCore robot, which is built onto a tracked skid-steer loader that autonomously takes soil samples.
Another agricultural service company that uses robots to perform field operations, called Sabanto, plants row crops in the United States and it’s picking up more acres every year.
It installs autonomous software on tractors equipped with three-point hitch planters.
Every spring, the company starts planting in the southern U.S. and then moves north as the fields become ready to be planted, similarly to how custom combines follow favourable harvest conditions from south to north across the Midwest.
However, it’s likely that the high-value fruit and vegetable markets will be the first sector where the robotic-based service model gets a solid foothold.
For instance, FarmWise is a startup that builds autonomous weeding robots that serve vegetable growers in the Salinas Valley and Santa Maria region in California. The company is moving into other U.S. growing regions.
FarmWise like other smaller, young companies that offer similar services have the potential to disrupt existing high-value crop production techniques.
“Our solution, which on the one hand does not use even a drop of chemical inputs, and on the other hand divides by 10 the number of people that will be required to perform the same job in the same amount of time,” said Sebastien Boyer, chief executive officer of FarmWise.
“We’re developing in-house new types of machines that are powered by artificial intelligence to be able to both capture the relevant pieces of information about each plant and turn that information into a precise physical action that our machines are performing,” Boyer said.
FarmWise operates the robotic weeding technology it developed under contact with vegetable growers.
The smart cameras on the FarmWise Titan, or FT35, detect every plant, both weed and crop, and then onboard computers send instructions to the robotic weeding arms.
“We have downward facing cameras that are analyzing every single crop as the robot is passing by. In real time that data, all the images coming from these cameras, are analyzed by embedded computers on the machine,” Boyer said.
“We have about 12 robotic arms per machine that are moving with different degrees of freedom to cut out the weeds very precisely, but also very quickly so we can go through the fields in a very timely fashion.”
Both hyperspectral cameras and cameras that operate within the visual range are used to identify plants.
The robotic arms mimics the action of someone using a hand hoe to kill weeds, and it cuts weed roots about one inch below the soil surface.
FarmWise spent years developing in-house AI algorithms that are made for the specific purpose of detecting crops and weeds.
“We rely on deep learning algorithms and a lot of data that we accumulated over the years to get to a very accurate decision-making process, in terms of what type of plant this is, where it’s located, and then a few other parameters that help us do a very good job at the service that we deliver,” Boyer said.
He said the algorithm has been built to be able to transfer easily between different crops and growing regions.
Cameras, radar and GPS are used for the self-driving component of the FT35, which is powered by a Caterpillar diesel engine.
Tablets are used for the user interface and operators do not need to physically interact with the weeding robot.
The initial value proposition of the FarmWise system, to cut weeds out of crops, has been added to by using the data the robots collect to help farmers make agronomic decisions.
“There are different things that farmers may do with all data. One is looking at the past, like how did my decision from two weeks ago affect my current crop counts or crop growth today. Then there is an assessment of what’s currently on the field, and that’s really useful to inform decisions,” Boyer said.
“Do I need to fertilize more or do I need to irrigate more? Maybe I forgot to turn on an irrigation pipe at one corner of the field and that definitely shows on my map.”
He said they are building more tools to help producers look into the future by correlating the data FarmWise collects with other sources of information to help predict what will happen on a field, weeks in advance.
Customers have access to an online dashboard created by FarmWise where they can access their field’s data, which has tools to help growers understand which agronomic actions will be the most profitable.
“The data is owned by our customers but we’re essentially suggesting they let us use that data and make that data look nicer and combine the data with other sources of information so that data is more useful for them afterwards,” Boyer said.
The FT35 is built in Detroit, Michigan, and is the company’s first generation weeding robot.
This summer FarmWise will have 15 units weeding U.S. fields.
Boyer said the company does plan on expanding its service into broad acre crops, and plans on running pilot programs in Canada within two years.
“We do see opportunities in broad acre crops in the long term. In the short term though, we have a clear lead in the segment that we’re in today, and we see a lot of opportunities for growth both in terms of acres, but also in terms of value we create per acre on these crops.”