Autonomous robot fleet could cut agricultural chemical use

The amount of chemicals used in agricultural production could be cut with the use of a fleet of autonomous robots.

Engineers working on the EU’s Future Farm project aim to create a network of smart vehicles that collect useful information and communicate it with the rest of the fleet in order to cut the amount of herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers sprayed onto farmers’ fields.

Simon Blackmore, head of engineering at Harper Adams University College, told The Engineer that each vehicle in the four- or five-strong fleet would have a specific function. He said that a ‘scouting robot’ would measure a variety of characteristics relating to plant growth and then pass on the data to other vehicles in the fleet.

According to Blackmore, the scouting robot will use lasers and sensors to measure growth rates, crop height, leaf colour and nitrogen uptake. ‘These characteristics can all be measured through a robot instead of a person. People are expensive, mistake prone and subjective,’ said Blackmore.

The scouting robots can inform the rest of the fleet where to apply fertiliser and how much pesticide to spray. ‘Multispectral imaging sensors can be used to work out the wavelengths being emitted by crops in the field. From this, farmers can work out the amount of chlorophyll on the leaves and, as a result, deduce how much nitrogen needs to go onto the crops,’ explained Blackmore.

Blackmore believes the time is right for the wider commercialisation of agricultural robots, adding that he is having ongoing discussions with Massey Ferguson and other agricultural manufacturers.

‘It’s a paradigm shift and therefore everybody is a little bit nervous,’ he said. ‘The trouble is that it’s a very disruptive technology for them.’