Agri-robotics for a Sustainable Farming Future

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Agriculture in the future will see increasing use of scientifically precise farming techniques, where automated ‘agro-bots’ monitor, treat and work the land, using advanced technology designed to help maximise yields and minimise disease. With its extensive experience in automation and agricultural mechanisation, Yanmar is now showing the way in advanced field robotics research.

Increased automation and technology within agriculture is nothing new in itself of course – in fact, it’s been happening ever since the Industrial Revolution. But what is new is how technology is being used to tackle problems related to food disease control and unstable weather patterns. The focus is now on achieving desired yields in an environmentally sustainable way, with a continuous focus on reducing the amount and type of chemicals used.

With its European research facility nestled in the hills above Florence, Italy, Yanmar R&D Europe (YRE) is well placed to focus on a variety of field-based studies to bring added value to the agriculture industry – and possibly even attract a new generation of workers to the land. These include the two-year, four-million Euros ‘SMASH’ project being carried out in cooperation with 10 technology partners to develop a mobile agricultural ‘eco-system’ to monitor, analyse and manage agricultural crops.

The acronym stands for ‘Smart Machine for Agricultural Solutions Hightech’, and this project was co-financed by the Tuscany local government. It consists of the development of a modular robotic platform that employs the latest information communications technology to examine crops and soils, analyse gathered information and provide clear, actionable information to farmers to support crop management.

One of Yanmar’s many roles was to develop control systems for the multipurpose robotic arm for mobile manipulation (including precision spraying), sensor integration for positioning technologies, and autonomous navigation and software development for the control of the system’s mobile base (in collaboration with other partners).

For YRE’s Modelling and Control Engineer Manuel Pencelli, developing a prototype agro-bot that could be used to monitor and control crops, take soil samples for analysis and accurately target agricultural chemicals for precision application, required many different areas of expertise from the beginning of the project.

“There have been many partners involved throughout. We needed mechanical expertise for developing the structure of the vehicle, and many ‘communications’ experts because we have a lot of devices that need to ‘talk’ to each other. Our starting point was in fact a tracked vehicle that was originally built for moving along a beach and cleaning the shoreline!”

There are two working SMASH prototypes – one for grapevines and the other for spinach – to cover the two different types of crops that were originally slated for research. The former has already undergone significant testing at a vineyard farm in the Pisa province, where Manuel has been instrumental in demonstrating the possibilities that this robotic ecosystem could offer farmers.

“SMASH is not a single machine, but a series of different devices including a robot, base station, drones and field sensors that together provide vital information to help farmers. A farmer could program the task that he wants SMASH to carry out, and while he is involved in other activities, this machine could move autonomously, monitoring crops, detecting and treating diseases, and saving the farmer or his workers significant time out in the fields manually checking crops.”

SMASH consists of a mobile base, a robotic arm featuring manipulators and vision systems, a drone and an ancillary ground station. Imagine a system that is designed to function across a range of precision agriculture technologies, offering specific insights on geomatics, robotics, data mining, machine learning etc, while taking into account the environmental and social issues facing farmers.

For Manuel, the possibilities for SMASH are endless: “In addition to all the functions that can be performed by the robotic arm, we also have some attachments that can be mounted on the back of the vehicle for mechanical weeding, or working the soil, as it moves. This work can be done simultaneously, together with the monitoring and detection.”

Yanmar’s expertise has been in the software development for the agro-bot and the integration and installation of all of the other parties’ components. It’s a complicated mass of electronics, with wires, sensors, cameras, GPS receivers, and multiple electric motors (eight of them!) competing for space. But it all works – even on a muddy vineyard in late February where the independent steering system and superior traction is demonstrated on a variety of terrain.

“The sensor fusion was one of the most challenging aspects of this project,” adds Manuel. “Because we have a very particular environment within fields, where a number of variables can change, such as the infrastructure, soil, shape of the fields and even other workers moving around the agro-bot. So, the localisation of the vehicle, improving the robustness of it and understanding its physical constraints were interesting – such as speed, steering angle, the positioning of, and communication between the mounted on-board devices – all these aspects can affect the motion of the vehicle.”

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