The Next Frontier of Weeding Robots
Three agriculture technology companies share what this state-of-the-art automation can do.
People who choose to work in the agriculture industry often feel called to it. This occupation is a labor of love and not for the faint of heart. From spacing the plants for optimal growth to preparing the land for harvest, farming requires a great deal of physical exertion and heavy lifting.
Agriculture technology companies have taken note and continue to work toward ways to ease the strain on human workers. The solution? Automating some of the industry’s most labor-intensive tasks. One such task near the top of the list is weeding, and the technology is catching on.
“The developments in weed control are becoming more and more numerous and innovative every year,” says Michael Fontanin, director of marketing and communications for VitiBot.
Weeding robots seek to manage a back-breaking but essential job by relegating farmer workers to a managerial role—one they can do from their smartphones. Each weeding robot works differently, giving agricultural operations the flexibility to choose the best option for their unique set-up.
“It’s important to note that we no longer have to convince people to accept these robots because that work was done five or six years ago,” says Naïo Technologies communication director Anouck Lefebvre. “The adoption of robotics on farms is happening now.”
Here’s how three robotics companies have developed state-of-the-art weeding technology to help farmers protect their crops.
The idea for the AVO weeding robot was born from an intimate knowledge of a necessary pain point: ecoRobotix co-founder and chief technological officer Steve Tanner spent his youth helping his parents weed sugar beets on their farm in Essert-Pittet, Switzerland. Weeding sugar beets was tedious, but Tanner was dismayed to see that hand weeding had been largely replaced by pervasive chemical applications that often harmed the environment.
Tanner devised a lightweight, energy autonomous robot that would use artificial vision and precise herbicide applications to weed instead. He connected with fellow entrepreneur Aurélien Demaurex to found ecoRobotix on January 1, 2014. Since then, the AVO weeding robot has been used in Germany, France and Spain on rapeseed, beans, meadows and, of course, sugar beets.
“Chemical treatments do not have a positive image, but they are efficient,” says communication officer Isabelle Aeschlimann. “And for us, the objective is to reduce the quantities applied.”
AVO helps to ensure a smaller environmental footprint. It works by identifying flora that are dissimilar to the selected cultivar. It ignores the crops, targeting the weed with a mini dose of herbicide, allowing farmers to use 90 percent less. AVO is solar powered and can run for 12 daylight hours and into the night with the help of two rechargeable batteries. Thanks to a self-service downloadable Android and Mac application, growers can focus on other tasks knowing they will receive an alert if issues should arise.
When developing its weeding technology, Naïo Technologies didn’t stop at a single robot. It created three: Oz, Ted and Dino. Each model focuses on a different application. Oz weeds and hoes a plot of land using specialized tools without the need for constant supervision. More than 110 of these robots are already in operation.
Meanwhile, Ted is a multifunctional weeding robot designed for vineyards. This low-impact machine uses camera vision and sensors to position the tools as close to the crop as possible. More than 30 Ted robots are working on vineyards today.
Dino is specially designed for large-scale vegetable farms. This electric weeding robot works on crops like leafy greens, with more than 25 Dino models currently being used in Europe and California.
“Having so many of our weeding robots in operation is a huge advantage because we are able to get lots feedback from the field,” Lefebvre says. “We use it to improve the robots constantly.”
It seems to be working as a recent customer survey confirmed that those using the robots deemed them user-friendly. All three weeding robots use an advanced GPS navigation system and help farmers manage weeding without herbicides. Naïo also implemented a specialized safety and quality control department dedicated that ensures the robots can do their work without harming human workers or the crops.
Since his childhood, Cédric Bache has been trying to make vineyard work easier on his father. Vineyards are special cases, as the vine stocks exist close to the machinery and tools. The vines are often planted on steep slopes and inclines. This makes navigating a vineyard a task that requires a lot of experience and rigorous attention to detail. Skilled labor is hard to find.
With an eye to the environment and worker safety, Bache developed a crawler robot named Hector that tackled mechanical weeding, spraying, mowing and stripping. This initial innovation paved the way for Bakus, a completely autonomous vineyard straddler that manages the challenging environment and a wide range of passive tools, including plows, simple sprayers, kress fingers and more.
“Bakus had several objectives before it went to market,” Fontanin says. “Increasing operator safety, protecting the vineyard and biodiversity, optimizing profitability by working the soil autonomously using a wide range of tools.”
The weeding robot runs quietly, using 75Kw/h of electric power to navigate the terrain treating existing weeds without herbicide applications. Bakus is currently being used on vineyards in Champagne, France and will soon be used for soil work in the Bordeaux region.