There are a number of reasons for farmers to be excited about the prospect of using smart technologies on their operations. For one thing, more machines reduce a farm’s reliance on hard-to-find migrant labor. They also give growers more control over scarce resources like water and expensive ones like fertilizers and herbicides. Many farms have turned to agriculture technologies to provide environmentally friendly solutions to pest and disease problems.
Those who are interested in going this route have plenty of options. From the latest generation of picking, weeding and spraying robots to GPS-guided tractors and automated irrigation controls, the world’s oldest industry is becoming increasingly high-tech.
One such operation is Chatelain Nursery. At the family-owned farm, nursery and garden center in Le Thillay, France, 18-year-old Antoine Chatelain has taken the lead on bringing robotics into the mix.
“I assess everything related to technology for the company, and I want the company to work with robots,” Chatelain says. “When my grandfather purchased the nursery, it was one of the first to use machines to reduce the strain and the physical impact of the job. I think robots are the natural evolution for us.”
The farm started out with two robots. The first was developed in-house with help from Sony, which installed the Robotics for Microfarms (ROMI), an open and lightweight robotics platform that helps small-market farms with crop monitoring. The other was the OZ 440 autonomous weeding robot from Naïo Technologies, of which Chatelain is an operator.
The road to implementing robotics hasn’t always been easy. Today, Chatelain Nursery is using a semi-autonomous guided tractor on its cereals crop. Chatelain describes it as kind of “working and not working at the same time.” With the other machines and prototypes, he describes highs and lows and a lot of trial and error.
“At first, the Oz was…not great,” Chatelain says. “I can speak from experience because I was the operator. The worst part was the false hope because it has two guidance systems: LIDAR and LD-MRS.”
The navigation required a bit of calibration.
“When it was on the row, it worked fine,” Chatelain explains. “Sometimes, it would over-correct and cut some of the crops, but it was minor. When it had to make the U-turn at the end of the row, that’s when it would completely mess up. Instead of going down the next row, it would turn around and go down the same row it had already done three or four times.”
When the farm had an issue with the batteries, Naïo Technologies sent the piece and scheduled a technician to come out to the farm. The piece arrived two weeks before the technician was scheduled, so Chatelain took matters into his own hands—and ended up fixing Oz himself. The machine is working much better these days.
“Before the lockdown in France, Naïo Technologies shipped the new upgrade package for Oz, and it included GPS RTK for the guidance system,” Chatelain says. “After some training, it corrected the turn issues we had been having. Now, it knows when it overcorrects and can be directed to any coordinates on the farm no problem. It is a really great product now.”
Some of the biggest hurdles from introducing new technologies onto the farm come from trying to get the more seasoned workers on board. Chatelain explains a time when the farm first introduced the tractor.
“The guys were saying, ‘oh, this thing is crap. I will never use it,’” he laughs. “I said, ‘we’re going to take 10 minutes, and I am going to explain how it works.’ They were a little afraid because they didn’t know what it was all about. I showed them how to use it, and one week later, many of them came back saying, ‘this thing is so great. I saved an hour on that field.’ I only had positive feedback on the tractor.”
His passion for technology, however, has not been sullied by a few bumps in the road. The potential advantages robots provide far outweigh the cons.
“The high availability of the machines mean they can be used any day of the week and any hour of the day,” says Chatelain, who adds that the precise, consistent work robots accomplish is a definite perk. “The robots tackle the hard part of the work, the unattractive jobs that no one really wants to do. We will definitely see more robots on the farm.”