Using robotics in agriculture for greater efficiency and sustainabilityDate of publication: 22.11.2023
Robotics in agriculture brings many benefits that significantly increase efficiency and productivity. Robots work continuously and more accurately than humans, in different weather conditions and at all hours, leading to better use of resources. They are a key factor in precision farming, allowing the careful use of water, fertilisers and plant protection products, which not only reduces waste but also the impact on the environment. In addition, robots provide a solution to labour shortages in many agricultural areas. The ability to collect and analyse data provides important insights into soil condition and utilisation, plant growth trends and crop production forecasts, which influence the appropriate management of crops. In addition, automation leads to improvements in crop quality and quantity. The impact on farmers cannot be ignored either, as robots perform dangerous, tedious and repetitive tasks, reducing physical strain and the risk of injury.
Versatile use of robots in agriculture
Robots cover a wide range of applications in agriculture, from harvesting and picking fruit and vegetables, to identifying ripe crops and reducing waste. Equipped with appropriate sensor systems, robots monitor the condition of plants and allow timely interventions in the event of disease or pests. They use advanced navigation and mapping technologies for sowing and planting, which optimises the use of space and allows optimal care of the plants during growth by monitoring soil conditions and removing weeds on a regular basis. The use of robots to apply plant protection products and fertilisers allows targeted application and reduces environmental impact. In addition, robots can perform labour-intensive and demanding tasks such as pruning or thinning for certain crops, demonstrating their versatility and relevance in modern agriculture.
Developing innovative applications in the Robotics Laboratory
The Laboratory of Robotics at the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, UL, has entered the field of agricultural robotics by developing various robotic applications (https://agro.cobotic.si/), including a robotic system for monitoring and analysing tomatoes in greenhouses and predicting crop yields (Rector's Award 2022 in the category of researchers and employees of the University of Ljubljana, 3. winner of the 2023 competition for the best technological solutions in beekeeping, as selected by the Slovenian Beekeepers' Association), a robot for grass cutting, automatic soil sampling with a rapid method for measuring the electrical conductivity of the soil and target sampling, and a robot for collecting pollen (winner of the Beekeepers' Association of Slovenia's competition for the best technological solutions in beekeeping in 2023), the robot for harvesting stem vegetables (winner of the Best Idea in Agribusiness - Hi-tech Competition 2022, organised by the Finance newspaper), and we also touched on the harvesting area.
Excellent results from the asparagus harvesting robot
Originally, the stem vegetable harvester was designed to harvest asparagus, which, due to its specific growth characteristics, requires a selective harvesting method. It consists of a tracked mobile platform, a parallel delta robot with a customised gripper and a sensor system for asparagus identification and localisation. The implemented artificial intelligence methods detect asparagus from a combination of colour and depth images and select which ones are suitable for harvesting. The robot has been tested both in laboratory conditions and in the field, with a detection and harvesting success rate of 77% for a harvesting time of less than 3.5 s per asparagus. The mobile robot allows for additional upgrades such as growth monitoring, short-term yield prediction, long-term analysis of the condition of the plantation, and real-time weed removal.
The integration of robotics in agriculture represents an evolution of the industry, increasing productivity, efficiency and sustainability by addressing the fundamental challenges of agriculture, such as labour shortages, producing healthier food by reducing the use of plant protection products, and making decisions based on long-term and instantaneous crop monitoring.