As the agriculture industry becomes increasingly focused on environmental initiatives that reduce chemical inputs, phase out diesel tractors and transition operations to ecological farming, autonomous robots have their work cut out for them. It’s no longer sufficient to have a self-driving machine. The next generation of innovative solutions must do even more to advance the industry’s overall goals.
Enter Robot One V2023, Pixelfarming Robotics’ updated autonomous agricultural robot for biodiverse farming. This robust solar-powered machine boasts 10 robotic arms can be positioned (and repositioned) with millimeter accuracy in real time, giving it the potential to replace five human laborers with a variety of different tools. The solution was also built with regenerative farming in mind. Robot One includes lightweight construction, an electric drivetrain, roof-mounted solar panels and an adjustable row width that allows it to be used in nearly every cropping system without introducing harsh chemicals or compacting the soil.
Perhaps, the robot’s most impressive feature is its computer vision. Robot One uses 14 high-resolution cameras, depth-sensing technologies and predictive plant growth models to instantly detect and identify different plants. The machine makes 100,000 detections per hour, which can translate into 100,000 pulled weeds or planted crops. The computer vision works by creating a 3D map of an operation’s terrain to help farmers to optimize plant growth and quality, as well as their agricultural layout.
“One of the hardest things about autonomous robots is teaching them what to do,” says Arend Koekkoek, Pixelfarming Robotics CEO. “Robot One has scan-and-detect functionality, which means you can put it in a field, and it will scan the plants and show you what it sees. The farmer can then decide, ‘I want this plant to be treated like this and this plant to be treated like that.’”
At World FIRA 2023, Koekkoek and his team will demonstrate exactly how the 2023 version of the robot functions in the field. Attendees will get to see two Robot One machines. The first demonstration will show how the 10 robotic arms work to remove weeds without stirring up the soil or disrupting the surrounding plants. The second demonstration will focus on the machine’s laser-scanning capabilities.
“If you drive on the fields, Robot One will see three or four types of plants,” Koekkoek says. “You can say, ‘I want to keep plant type A and B, and I want C and D to be removed. This teaches the machine what to do. Normally, it would take a couple of months to teach a machine to recognize a certain plant. This is instantaneous.”
“Robot One has the data processing and storage capacities to remember each plant,” Koekkoek continues. “It marks the plants on its map and stores it in a GPS database. It knows about every plant, so the second time around, when it sees the plant, it knows what to do. We think this is really important. To get to the next generation of farming, we need to get to that level of care with the plants.”
Koekkoek sees the next generation of farming as having a serious environmental focus. This isn’t just about carbon farming or sustainability. He believes the future of farming requires operations to be regenerative. It starts with the soil. There are a number of ways Robot One helps farmers cultivate and protect the life that lives underground.
In addition to offering alternatives to manual or chemical weeding and avoiding subsurface compaction that can lead to loss of yield, loss of quality and reduced water storage, Robot One enables farmers to engage in non-inverting tillage (NINV). This technique translates to improved development of soil life, superior soil structure and increased water infiltration.
Operations with high-quality soil certainly reap the rewards of healthier crops, but that’s not the only way Robot One eases the transition to regenerative farming practices. The machine also helps farmers take control of their cropping systems by introducing the right plants.
“Normally, you might use an herbicide or pesticide to gain control over what’s growing or what’s not growing,” Koekkoek says. “When there is a disease in the crop, you can use a chemical or you can also preserve the soil by planting a certain plant that has the same chemical properties. Instead of using an artificial chemical, you can make the decision to use the robot’s AI to put in a plant to cure the soil. By curing the soil, you increase the vitality of the plants, avoiding the loss of crops. The plant acts as an aspirin by introducing greater biodiversity and stimulating the soil life.”
While Robot One’s many features and capabilities may seem intimidating to someone new to autonomous technologies, Pixelfarming Robotics has an extensive onboarding program to ensure users won’t get left behind. The program shows farmers how to use the robot’s many features specifically on their operations. For example, users learn how to train the robot for image recognition of their crops and weeds.
“Our aim is to help bring Robot One onto farms as a new coworker and have it be successful on the farm,” Koekkoek says. “Otherwise, it just ends up a bunch of rust on the side of the field. We are quite eager to support new users in understanding robot technology because it is so different. But once you can bring the technology onto your farm, you go to the next level. What we see with farmers is that their income goes up. They get more yield, get more value and reduce their dependence on contractors. They get more freedom in their work, and that is exactly what a coworker should do for you.”
Helpful robotic coworkers will likely be essential in the future. In the European Union, the Green Deal target for 2030 is to have 25 percent of land under the umbrella of organic farming. In the Netherlands, where Koekkoek is from, the goal is to go from approximately 6 percent organic farming now to 15 percent in 2030. Koekkoek says that translates to at least 6,000 farmers in the Netherlands alone.
“The task at hand is really quite large, and I hope there will be more robot builders because, in my mind, the only way to get there is through the use of robots,” he says. “I really encourage robot builders to take these steps, so we can all more forward in that way. Of course, I think we have the best robots in the world, but I’m really happy that there are other companies attacking the same problem in their own way. They’re helping to provide alternatives for farmers to make the move toward robotic farming, and that’s really the goal.”