Advances in Agrobotics

Recent advances in farming technology have led to significant improvements in agricultural productivity. For example, the two decades preceding 2011 saw a rise in corn production levels in the U.S by about one third according to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, a significant factor being the use of modern precision farming methods such as agrobotics.

Some growers now employ aerial imaging techniques to determine spatial variability on their corn fields. Agrobotics fitted with powerful cameras, equipped with high-quality, non-distorting lenses are deployed to produce maps showing precise spatial variability on corn fields. Prior to the use of this technology, growers could not see the huge variations in the height of trees on their fields simply by standing outside the corn fields. They are therefore compelled to put fertiliser down uniformly on the field.

However, with the special knowledge provided by spatial variability surveillance, it is easy for the grower to figure out troubled, low growth areas of the field where shorter trees are. Time and resources can then be concentrated on more productive areas where the taller trees are.

Accurate soil data is at the heart of maximum yield and low costs in the farming business. Prior to the advent of precision farming machinery, a handful of cores were manually pulled at inconsistent distances, depths and angles from the centre of a grid. Modern precision methods now employ the latest in GPS and telematics techniques operated from a tractor cab to pull out a large number of cores from consistent distances and uniform depths and angles. This results in precise nutrient placement and planting with maximum yield.

The use of farming robotics for labour mechanisation is now being developed for commercial use on farms to improve productivity. Application of herbicides to weeds can be labour intensive, yet weed control is an essential part of productive farming. Robotics technology now enables growers to deploy tractor guided smart machines with computer vision that can identify individual plants, so that herbicides are selectively applied to the weeds and not the crop or the soil.

Researchers have revolutionised lettuce production by designing efficient machines that can ‘thin’ a field of lettuce in less time than 20 workers doing the same work manually. The machines are fitted with video cameras and visual-recognition software which can identify the lettuce plants to be eliminated.

Harvesting units with robotic arms have also been developed to improve labour productivity in berry picking. The robots are equipped with artificial vision systems that can scan and pick the ripest berries, based on colour and size. The berries are then placed on a conveyor belt which transports them to an operator who packages them ready for the market.

Automation of farming machinery has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years. Harvest automation robots have been developed to address employee turnover and to carry out a variety of plant handling tasks. The robots can be deployed with minimal training and cloud-based data collection software gathers information relating to the performance of the robots. This information is fed back to production planners and this enables the grower monitor the work of the robots. Not only the work of robots can be monitored by cloud-based data collection software, almond growing, a water guzzling but highly lucrative agricultural enterprise and farms growing similar high-value but thirsty crops also deploy this type of farming machinery to reduce the cost of watering their crops.

Moisture sensors planted in the soil keep track of the amount of moisture in the soil and relay this information to a computer in the cloud. Through a feedback mechanism, a carefully calibrated pulse of water is delivered from the farm's irrigation system to each tree by precise sprinkling.

Researchers have developed agile robotic insects which can autonomously pollinate a region of crops. These tiny electronic devices are designed to mimic the collective behaviour of a bee colony. They have been developed to address the threat of colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon that occurs when majority of the workers in a bee colony disappear. A great number of agricultural crops depend on the bees for cross pollination and significant economic losses can occur as a result of this phenomenon.

Visit Advanced Engineering for farming machinery maintenance in the lower South Island.