Nearly everyone in the agricultural industry is eager for the technologies that reduce chemical inputs, address labor shortages and take the risk out of a challenging, physically intense job. That’s good news for the startups and manufacturers developing the latest solutions. Despite their excitement, however, farmers aren’t always as eager to change their tried-and-true growing systems, reorganize their fields or break the bank to afford the latest autonomous machines.
Researchers have noticed the gap between the available technology and the conditions required to ensure their success. At INRAE, a French public research institute dedicated to agricultural science, experts are working on ways to make the transition to autonomy easier. Their solution? To explore so-called “accessible technologies” that bridge the aforementioned gap. Roland Lenain, Research Director at INRAE, explains why these technologies are needed, what they might look like and how they could be used to help the industry transition to more advanced autonomous solutions.
To understand the conversation around accessible technologies, it’s important to first understand the limitations of the autonomous robots already on the market. Lenain says that while there are more agricultural robots available than ever before, the solutions are far from perfect.
“There are still developments that need to be made and behavioral problems that need to be understood,” he says. “The fact is that for robots to be usable, they need to be comprehensive. We need to have interactions between farmers and robots such that anybody can understand what the robot is expected to do because it’s not always clear. From a human point of view, the technology also needs to be easily attainable. The robots now are not so easy to use nor are they perfectly tuned. They need to be able to do a very accurate job of completing their tasks to ensure that the robots are safe and can do what farmers need them to do.”
Another issue is that the available solutions are often prohibitive to the people who need them most. Some of the changes farmers must make to accommodate these machines take time, such as replanting similar crops to be closer to one another or widening the space between rows in an orchard. Lenain believes there are other limitations that prevent more operations from transitioning to autonomous robots, too.
“We have to ask ourselves the question of whether the new developments we’ve created are actually accessible to anybody,” he says. “When using robots, you have the price of the sensors, the core processors and other technologies. This can cost thousands of Euros, not to mention the need to store a huge amount of data, train the network, learn how the robot works and so on. We can share this information with farmers, but I definitely believe we need to produce robots that are able to adapt to the humans they’re working with.”
Lenain also sees a troubling contradiction between robots being designed to save farmers resources, such as labor and input costs, while also requiring a huge upfront investment of resources (aka money) to get started. He believes there’s an opportunity to embrace simplicity.
“We need to use new principles to develop robots,” Lenain says. “This means not choosing very complex algorithms that require a lot of computation power. That’s why it’s interesting to develop small robots that operate with a collective intelligence. By creating a very simple platform, the robot’s performance can be viewed on a smartphone, which is good because everyone already has a smartphone. Smartphones also have the computation to run simple algorithms, so these robots tend to be accessible in terms of price, practices, understanding and resource consumption.”
Accessible technologies like the type Lenain proposes are exactly the kinds of solutions that will be discussed at World FIRA 2023’s scientific workshop. The event is aptly named Accessible Robotic Technologies for the Agricultural Transition, and it will include research and development findings that are poised to change the way robots operate in the fields and farmers do their jobs.
Mostly, it is designed to be a conversation about autonomous technologies with the people best positioned to use them to feed a growing population and ultimately save the world.
“I am convinced that we can make progress with robotics in the future by gathering information and by bringing every kind of person around the table to share what we know,” Lenain says. “We want to meet with researchers, manufacturers, farmers and people from the from society because if we want to really make progress with these technological developments, we have to share all these abilities with the people who will encounter them in everyday life.”
“And for me,” Lenain adds, “it's very important to have this kind of workshop at World FIRA 2023 because it gives us permission to talk about these new ideas, embrace other people’s perspectives and create a better understanding of how autonomous technologies can help solve problems.”