An €8m European project led by Wageningen University in the Netherlands aims to create an ecosystem of autonomous agricultural vehicles to address the shortage of labour across the continent.
The four year Robs4Crops project aims to convert existing agricultural vehicles to robotic operation, with smart tools, autonomous vehicles, and a farming control system basedon a digital twin of the farm.
Growers all over Europe report a shortage of labour as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Fields of fruit and vegetables were not harvested because thousands of seasonal workers were unable to travel to work due to the virus. This has created signficant interest in smart agriculture systems.
This marks the beginning of a structural change in the agri-food sector. At the moment, robotics is still only used sparingly as stand-alone units rather than as part of a complete, innovative robotic system. From a non-technical point of view, agricultural robots do not fit well with current farming practice and are not supported by a network.
“The agricultural sector is very sensitive to the costs and scarcity of labour and it is critical to make cultivation methods more efficient and sustainable. Robs4Crops provides a breakthrough in revitalizing the European food and agriculture industry and the essential ‘catalyst’ in accelerating and adopting high tech robotics and automated techniques in agriculture,” said Dr Frits van Evert, Senior researcher at Wageningen University & Research and project coordinator of Robs4Crops.
The project will address the technical challenges by creating a robotic farming solution consisting of the three elements. Existing agricultural implements and tractors will be upgraded so that, together with existing farming robots, they can function as parts of a robotic system. Development and testing will take place on the ground, in real operating conditions, in four countries and in close collaboration with stakeholders.
The key is using existing equipment, reducing initial investment, and by addressing maintenance, insurance, financing and training options. Regulations, robo-ethics and socio-economic impact will also be discussed.
Robotics offers an opportunity to develop new business models but building the ecosystem for agricultural robotics will be done iteratively, in parallel with the technical development, with demonstrations on commercial farms in France, Greece, Spain and the Netherlands.
The project will focus on the most demanding repetitive field operations, namely mechanical weed control and spraying against pests and diseases. Various startups around Europe are already usig AI to address this challege.
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