Le 02/05/2024

Can Autonomous Robots Save the Vegetable Industry?

Emilie Casteil of Carottes de France explains how new technologies seek to offer a promising alternative to herbicides for in-row weed control. Plus, four machines from the 2024 World FIRA event that are tackling mechanical weeding, laser weeding and tillage.

Throughout the agriculture industry, various regulations seek to limit the use of chemical inputs. The motivation for these updated standards is well-meaning. Fewer chemicals translate into a decrease in air and water pollution, and better protection of growers, agricultural workers and local residents.

Emilie Casteil

The downsides for farmers, however, are often overlooked. Such regulations place a greater burden on producers who have limited options to fight against pests, diseases and weeds. For carrot farmers in France, the latter problem has become borderline untenable.

One person who is intimately familiar with the challenges French carrot farmers face is Emilie Casteil. As the project manager for Carottes de France, an association comprised of 190 French growers producing 190,000 tons of carrots for the fresh market, Casteil understands the strain these regulations have put on farmers across the country.

“Weeding carrots is a very big issue in France,” she says. “It’s the number one issue having to do with carrots because we only have eight active ingredients we can use, and it’s not enough to manage all the weeds in the field. For some weeds, like nuts edge and black nightshade, we don’t have any chemical solutions. They don’t exist in France.”

With few active ingredients approved for use, these producers are forced to increase their reliance on manual weeding or wait for the agtech industry to deliver robotic solutions. Currently, the only viable option is manual weeding—a solution that is expensive, labor-intensive and often requires help from a workforce that continues to become scarcer with time.

Carrot field infested with black nightshades

“It’s a very big problem right now, and we also know that more active ingredients will disappear in the next two to three years,” Casteil says. “We think it will be very difficult to produce carrots in France. We have to find a solution soon, or it will not be possible.”

Casteil believes robots and other autonomous machines are the only real solution to this problem. Mechanical weeding products are available, but because carrots are slow to emerge from the ground and are small and fragile when they do, most mechanized weeding ends up killing some of the crop it’s trying to save. Lasers, electricity, and microwave solutions are far better options, though most aren’t yet field ready.

The industry is currently stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the technology to catch up to farmers’ needs. There are solutions on the horizon, though. Casteil has been impressed with the Laserweeder from Carbon Robotics, which uses artificial intelligence and high-powered lasers to detect and eliminate weeds at the meristem, before they compete with crops for nutrients and other resources.

“It seems to be the best solution on the market, but it might not be adapted for all French farmers,” Casteil says. “In southwest France, for example, we have very large farms that range from 600 to 1,000 hectares with plots that are 20 hectares. The Laserweeder would be great for these farms because it is a good size, and it would be economical for these farmers. They could afford to buy it.”

A field of carrots near Mont Saint Michel - Normandy, FR

“In places like Normandy, however, the farms are around 60 hectares with plots that are one hectare,” she continues. “The Laserweeder is too big and too expensive for them. We need more diversity of solutions, so every farmer can have a solution that is good for them.”

The agtech industry seems to be working on filling these needs. Casteil has also seen an early-stage electric solution that’s being tested in the field but not in the rows. Information is being gathered. It’s not clear how effective this solution is just yet. Similarly, Casteil has heard of a microwave solution being tested in the laboratory in Australia. If the results are promising, Casteil envisions that this might be another solution to try in France.

Ultimately, technology holds the key to ensuring vegetable production continues to thrive around the world. Carrot producers in France provide one example of how challenging it can be to grow crops without robots to tackle the tasks previously managed by chemical inputs. The right machinery is required to advance the green goals laid out for the agriculture industry. Regulations will always be easier to implement when farmers have the tools they need to succeed. In the meantime, farmers will continue to hope the manufacturers’ visions come to fruition in time.

“We need these kinds of technologies and for companies to invest in producing these machines,” Casteil says. “In Europe, there is a very big market for the companies working on these kinds of things. They are welcome to come to Europe to try their machines. We will wait for them.”

The latest World FIRA event showcased a wide range of robots and autonomous solutions for vegetable growing. Let’s take a closer look.

Credits @SPKTR

Oz by Naïo Technologies

This robot is a real daily assistant. It can be used for many tasks such as seeding and

planting, opening furrows, ploughing and mechanical weeding. Thanks to the RTK GPS, it navigates autonomously with centimetric accuracy. Oz comes with a 5-year warranty.

For more information, visit https://www.naio-technologies.com/en/home/

Orio by Naïo Technologies

Credits @SPKTR

Orio is the brand-new straddle robot in the Naïo Technologies’ range. Designed for row crops and beds of vegetables, arable crops, large growers and contractors, this robot offers the possibility to add options for greater autonomy and precision. This tool-carrier can be used for seeding, cultivating, weeding, collecting data and more! Its design make Orio fit with a lot of high-end tools available on the market and already owned by farmers. You can order optional T&H inter-row camera guidance system. Orio comes with a 5-year warranty.

For more information, visit https://www.naio-technologies.com/en/home/

Trektor by SITIA

Credits @SPKTR

TREKTOR is an autonomous agricultural machine. What sets TREKTOR apart is its hybrid nature. TREKTOR runs on electric power, but has an on-board diesel generator that enables it to recharge its batteries in the field while continuing to work. Its hybrid function reduces diesel consumption by up to 60% compared with a conventional tractor performing the same tasks. Designed for viticulture (straddle and inter-row) and horticulture (open fields or under chapels), TREKTOR adapts to existing hydraulic, mechanical or electric implements. It features a Cat. II rear 3-point hitch and an inter-wheel hitch. K.U.L.T.iSelect by K.U.L.T

For more information, visit https://www.sitia.fr/home/


Credits @SPKTR

Robot One works on the principle of “Scan & Act”. With the use of high-resolution cameras Robot One can make a scan of the field. By using Artificial Intelligence, you can train Robot One to recognize your crop. By choosing a tool like the streamer or laser, you can decide what action Robot One must do to remove the weeds. Cultivation without herbicides requires smart biological solutions and in-depth knowledge of plant interactions. With high-end vision processing capacity onboard and high-speed connections to the cloud, Robot One it is perfectly suited for large-scale, preferably biodiverse, environments.

For more information, visit https://pixelfarmingrobotics.com/

Categories : #Crops
  • Karli Petrovic
    Essayist at KPwrites.com