Robots to feed entire mankind

The world's population is growing rapidly, while the number of people employed in agriculture is on decline. The food crisis is on the horizon. The researchers suggest that introduction of special robots to the emptying fields can help replace farmers. Development of these machines is in full swing.

It is no secret that massive introduction of robots in manufacturing is inhibited not by the imperfection of these machines, but quite another reason. Indeed, robots can easily replace assembly line and construction sites workers, as well as cleaners in offices and in the streets, drivers of public transport, and even traffic wardens. Most human activities are a fixed sequence of very simple actions, and robots are capable of performing these actions.

Replacing people with robots is not happening because it would lead to severe unemployment. If machines dominate in all areas of activity, this would be very difficult to do. Of course, some of the workers who lost they jobs to robots will be able to re-qualify, for example, into technicians engaged in robots repair, but only few of them will be in demand.  

However, one area where robots would not cause any problems is agriculture. Now the number of people producing food is rapidly declining. This process is particularly obvious in Europe, North and South America, East Asia, and Russia, as increasingly more farmers are moving to cities. As a result, the volume of food production is reduced, and it has to be imported.

A good example is Japan. Due to mass migration of farmers to cities, the country meets its own demand for food by only 40 percent, and the rest is imported. Given that its population is growing rapidly, the threat of starvation is imminent. In this case, robots may be the best solution for the agriculture.

The idea of ​​"smart" technology for farming is not new. In Europe and America machines are employed in the fields that use GPS and "talk" to plows and water sprinklers. For example, a weeding tool can "tell" a tractor that it is going too fast, or ask it to take a left. Not that long ago, an American corporation John Deere developed a harvester that at the right moment signals its tractor to unload grain. A German company released a pair of Fendt tractors where the first tractor is controlled manually, and the other one automatically repeats the action of the first one, which reduces the time a farmer spends in the field by half.

However, experience has shown that these machines have some serious flaws. First, they are very heavy. Working in the fields, they trample down the soil, reducing its porosity and destroying useful forms of life, which consequently reduces yields. Soil compaction also increases its susceptibility to erosion, resulting in a flow of rain water. "Why do we plow? Mainly to eliminate the harm caused by heavy tractors. This operation takes up to 80 percent of energy required to cultivate the land," said Simon Blackmore of Harper Adams University (UK).

This means that agricultural robots of the future should be light and strong at the same time. In addition, they should be able to navigate in space, understand what is in front of them, and help the farmer. These robots should be able to perform targeted actions, for example, a grain of wheat needs just one cubic centimeter of soil for growth. In order for it to grow, there is no need to plow cubic yards of soil and cover them with pesticides and herbicides - it will be sufficient to treat the very place where it grows. Humans could not do it, but a tireless robot could easily cope with the task.

Recently satellite navigation technology RTK-GPS was developed that allows the machine to determine the location within two centimeters. Engineer Arnaud Ruckelshausen with the University of Applied Sciences of Osnabrück (Germany) developed it for its modular robo-farmer BoniRob. This four-wheel unit detects a green plant on brown soil with spectral cameras. It writes the information about its location to its memory and then visits the plant to see how it is developing.

Now the inventor intends to equip its mechanical farmer with a spray system, similar to that in inkjet printers. Then the leaves of weeds will receive small doses of herbicide and wheat and the soil around them will not suffer. According to the calculations of Mr. Ruckelshausen, it will reduce the use of chemicals by 80 percent. Even considering the cost of the robot it will be cheaper than weeding. Also, poisoning of soil, rivers and streams with chemicals will be avoided. This, too, will save a lot of money because astronomical sums are spent on the removal of chemical contaminants every year.

Ruckelshausen is also confident that the same can be achieved with the use of fertilizers. Field tests have shown that sensors for determining the level of nitrogen in plant tissue may reduce the consumption of fertilizers by 80 percent, without compromising productivity. Not to mention the fact that with the traditional methods of plant nutrition nearly half of fertilizer is wasted as it is washed away by rain, blown away by wind, etc. Spot feeding will also reduce the production of valuable chemicals, which again will save a lot of money.

So far, there is one question that still has no answer - how to teach robots to distinguish weeds from crops. Employees of the Australian Centre of Field Robotics believe that the easiest way is to program robots to recognize the shape of the leaves of plants. Tests of Danish HortiBot that they created proved that it is able to identify weeds and process them, focusing on the photos of leaves stored in its memory.

At the same time, there is also an issue of safety. Noboru Noguchi of Hokkaido University fears that robots may injure pedestrians or scare animals. However, engineers from the German corporation Bosch calmed their Japanese counterparts by presenting them with their developments in laser and ultrasonic monitoring of obstacles. They make robots understand that there is someone in front of it and stop. There is also a proposal to equip agricultural robots with soft bumpers.

Apparently, the first country where the robots will take to the field will be Japan - recently it launched a five year robotics project for agriculture with a budget of $8 million. With the help of robots the Japanese are hoping to bring the level of food production to 60 percent. Next agricultural robots are likely to appear in Western Europe, Australia and North America, because now these regions conduct the most rigorous research of the capabilities of these machines.

As for Russia, progress in this area is not yet in sight, although Russian villages are getting empty at the same rate as the Japanese ones. Russian technologies to build robotic systems are in decline. The ideas, original and promising, are there, but there are no plants that could produce all required components for robots.

Currently Russia buys most robots abroad, but this would not work with mechanical farmers. It is important for agricultural robots to be adapted to a particular soil and climate, and they need to be developed in the country where they will be applied. 

Anton Evseyev


Read the original in Russian

Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov