Robots for agriculture will require new start-up companies to manufacture them

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A British professor says large farm machinery engineering will be replaced by small start-up companies.Agricultural robots are touted as the future for saving time, money and energy but also reducing damage on soils.Professor Simon Blackmore, the head of engineering at Harper Adams University in the United Kingdom, says the large tractors have become too heavy."Analysing the current systems, we're actually seeing as many problems from the big machines as they have solved in the past," said Professor Blackmore."I estimate that up to 90 per cent of the energy that goes into cultivation is there to repair the damage that the big tractors have caused in the first place."Every year we cultivate, every year we damage. The following year we cultivate, then we damage, and so on every year.

"So how we move precision farming forward is by using lighter machinery!"

As an agricultural engineer, Professor Blackmore saw the future is robotics, without cutting people out of a job. "People will no longer need to sit in a tractor for up to 16 hours a day, but farm managers will still manage, operators will need to look after the machines," he said.In Australia, all the large tractors bought for farms are imported. But that could change if small start-up companies develop the smaller machines, and Professor Blackmore said that has to happen. He said agricultural robots were a major disruption to the production line of big manufacturers. "We've had a very linear development of agricultural machinery and they've got bigger all the time. With economies of scale, manufacturers have just made bigger and bigger vehicles," he said. "I'm envisaging a complete new mechanisation system that doesn't really base itself on what we've done in the past, but on what we need now, away from industrial production, into flexible manufacturing, as we've seen in industry." Professor Blackmore said robots would be adaptable to weather and world prices."It will be start-up companies spearheading agricultural robots in the near future," he said.The Australian Centre of Field Robotics, at the University of Sydney, is one of the leading such centres in the world. There Dr James Underwood has under development the small car-size robots that can muster dairy cows, take their temperatures and potentially spray weeds in the paddock.

Dutch robot picks peppers

Robots are already in development at the University of Wageningen, in the Netherlands, to pick red peppers or capsicum.Professor of engineering Eldert van Henten is developing the robot picker for indoor crops. Just half a percent of Dutch farmland is devoted to protected cropping. Yet out of those greenhouses, covering 10,000 hectares, comes 35 per cent of the value of Dutch agricultural produce, which bodes well for the need to feed nine billion people from shrinking farmland. "It's a very powerful way for producing crops, because you can protect them from the environment, and change the climate indoors and carbon dioxide levels and lift productivity massively," said Dr van Henten. "We have been building a robot to harvest sweet peppers because we have a big problem with the availability of skilled labour."To get a robot to recognise the fruit, first it has to find it, which is complicated for a blind machine.It also has to judge that the pepper is ripe and then grasp it. Dr van Henten said greenhouses might have to be redeveloped to cope especially with robots. He agreed that it was not large machinery manufacturers who would develop these robots. "I see some very young spin-offs from university using this technology, because they are open to using this technology for the future."

Period12 Feb 2015

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