For the past decade scientists have set milestones in the development of agricultural robots without drivers. However, safety is still an issue and must be optimised before we can take full advantage of the technology in the field. This requires more automisation of the robots so they can interact with their environment optimally.
An increasing number of farming operations in the field are taken over by robots because many agricultural implements have become so automatic that they can do the job on their own. However, the farmer is not yet completely superfluous since the robots need to be monitored and guided.
For years farmers and their machinery have been partners in shouldering the heavy jobs that have to be done in the field. Now a new type of partnership with machinery is emerging where machines are asked to not merely do the heavy jobs. These new roles are taken up by robots that are making their entrance onto farmland. Within certain limits they are able to work on their own and can thus relieve the farmer of his driving duties.
“The farmer no longer has to sit on the machine but can do other jobs that machines do less well, such as monitoring and optimising work routines and repairing components,” says senior researcher Rasmus Nyholm Jørgensen.
Conducting an orchestra
Robots are everywhere in farming, but their role is still very fixed. In the future, they will play a more emancipated role and be less directly controlled by a driver in a tractor cab. Instead, the robots will be increasingly autonomous. In this way, the farmer is freed from the cab and can instead do other jobs and also monitor several robots at a time – like a conductor directing several instruments in an orchestra.
“We imagine that the machine operator will be physically present where the essential processing of field operations takes place. The driverless machines do not need a cab and other expensive devices because the machines are integrated with the tool or act as tool carriers. The operator can monitor several machines in interaction with virtual operators from other fields or operations. For example, for crops such as sugar beets, potatoes and carrots this will mean that more than one field operation can be carried out at the same time and by a single person,” explains Rasmus Nyholm Jørgensen.
The work on developing the next generation of field robots is already well under way and some robots have already been put to use in the field. There are robots for weed control in transplanted crops in open field plant nurseries, and in recent years the mechanical weed control in sugar beets has become possible. There are also robots capable of weeding lettuce crops.
“The operator does not have to sit on the machine, but can walk behind it and check the quality of the work until the machine has to be manually turned in another direction,” says Rasmus Nyholm Jørgensen.
Safety first and foremost
If there is no driver in the cab, then safety is crucial. This is not yet the case with the existing systems, but it is possible to make them so if the operator can stop the machine immediately with a remote safety device. Researchers and companies are working together on developing sentient robots that can recognise people, animals and obstacles in the field.
This is achieved in the project SAFE – Safer Autonomous Farming Equipment - where Aarhus University is one of the participants.