Robots for large crops

 Slowly but surely, agricultural robots are appearing in many shapes, sizes and functionalities in the offerings of different companies.


What drives innovation in this direction and why this growing interest in robotics was the topic of a seminar held by Marco Sozzi – TeSAF Department, University of Padua – during the first edition of Fieragricola Tech in Verona.

What in particular drove innovation on this front was the agricultural sector’s need to respond to certain requests: greater efficiency in the use of resources, greater economic competitiveness, reduced labour availability, and greater job security. These have been the driving forces behind the development of robotic machines. In fact, the main objective of agricultural robotics is to help the sector improve the efficiency and profitability of processes and to replace humans in the most monotonous, dangerous or tiring operations. Labour shortages, increased consumer demand and high production costs are some of the factors that have accelerated automation in this sector, with the aim of reducing costs and optimising harvests.


Leading the Company towards Robotics

While technology is making great strides and interesting solutions are already available for the farm operator, the success of its introduction depends on the acceptance it finds among farm operators. It can happen that, as with any new technology, the introduction of robotics on the farm meets with some resistance. This is why it should take place in gradual steps that allow the operator to gradually acquire knowledge of the possibilities that this set of technologies is able to offer so that he can appreciate, step by step, the undisputed advantages of the automation of many jobs.  As Sozzi explains, the first step in introducing robotics into a company could be to think in terms of semi-automation, i.e. guidance systems with correction, by implementing semi-automatic or other types of guidance systems on the machines already present in the company, or by purchasing machines that are already equipped with a proportional solenoid valve system. These, acting on the hydraulic circuit of the steering, are able to guide the farm machine much more precisely, reducing overlaps with less stress for the operator and greater efficiency for the process. Only in a later step could one seek to automate not only the driving but also the execution of the farming practice, thus being able to start exploiting the many advantages that robotics can bring, such as:


  • increasing the area that can be dominated, entrusting robots with tasks with limited demand for decision-making or the most repetitive;
  • revitalising marginal areas;
  • increase in the energy efficiency of the single crop operation through the use of electric systems with accumulators or hybrid solutions with endothermic engines and inverters;
  • reduction in compaction due to the possibility of obtaining lighter and slimmer machines overall, as well as the possibility of controlling traffic in the field by always treading on the same tracks;
  • possibility of remotely controlling the operating machines ensuring high safety standards and allowing the use of specialized manpower even in marginal areas.



The Agrirobot Market

According to Sozzi, the global leaders in the development of agricultural robotics are Canada, the USA, Australia and, in Europe, France. The crops for which robotics is mainly used are herbaceous crops, followed by tree crops and horticultural crops. In terms of the function performed, mechanical weeding and crop protection are undoubtedly the operations that see the greatest use of robotic machines, also because here the advantage is particularly tangible: savings in chemical inputs for the farm and greater public acceptance of the technology. Machines for detailed crop monitoring also find important uses, especially in high-value crops such as vineyards. As far as power supply is concerned, most robotic machines are powered by an electric motor but many have a diesel back-up or are hybrids.




Types of Agricultural Robots


  • Weed Management

Weed management is one of the most demanding operations in the field. According to various sources, it can take up to 40% of a company’s work effort, especially in organic farming. Furthermore, herbicides have significant economic, environmental and social costs. Hence the interest in developing robotic solutions for these operations.


  • Seeding Robots

Seeding robots have already achieved a very high accuracy of over 90% and an inaccuracy range of +/-5 cm. Precision seeding gains ground because accurate crop density contributes to a high yield.


  • Monitoring and Detection of Diseases and Insects

If insects, diseases, micronutrient deficiencies were identified at an early stage, this could prevent economic damage that can become very serious. In addition to this, prompt and early detection can reduce the use of pesticides or fertilisers with important environmental and social benefits. Most existing systems are based on optical detection, which has proven very successful with detection accuracy of up to 90%.



The Future

What will be the sectors or types of machines that will be able to have a greater development? Sozzi says: «There are two trends for which I see developments: on the one hand there is a need for work aid machines, simpler and cheaper for single operations such as light soil tillage, mechanical weeding operations, etc. On the other hand, there is a demand for machines that can basically replace tractors, which can perform many and more complex operations».



What’s New for 2023

World FIRA is an event dedicated to agricultural robotics that for some years now has been taking place in France, probably the European nation furthest ahead in the production and use of robots in agriculture. Its mission is to facilitate the development of agricultural robotics start-ups. The latest innovations in agricultural robotics were presented at the 2023 edition, which took place in February:

  • the company Naïo Technologies (France) made the first public demonstration of its Jo crawler, a robot that carries tillage tools in narrow, sloping vineyards;
  • the company Pixelfarming (Netherlands) made the exclusive presentation of its Robot One, equipped with 10 independent arms and capable of carrying different tools;
  • PEK Automotive (Slovenia) offered a demonstration of Slopehelper, a robot that performs all activities of the annual cycle in vineyards and orchards (except harvesting).
  • EXXACT Robotics (France) presented a completely new concept with the TRAXX Concept H2, the world’s first autonomous hydrogen-powered vineyard tractor.
  • Nanovel (Israel): presentation of its intelligent autonomous fruit picker, respectful of the principles of sustainable and economical agriculture.
  • SICK (USA/France): presentation of its entire range of automation sensors for agricultural machinery.
  • SMC (Japan/France): demonstration of its smart fruit picking arm, the farmer’s “right arm”.


Maria Luisa Doldi


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