Robocrop project improves crop yields and cuts costs

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An autonomous robot promises to ‘revolutionise agriculture’ through the inspection of crops for ripeness and quality whilst detecting diseases and pests.

This the claim of robotics experts at the Manufacturing Technology Centre who have developed an autonomous robot that combines automation, artificial intelligence and advanced vision systems.

Based on Boston Dynamics’ Spot robotic dog, the RoboCrop project can reportedly cut the amount of chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture, increase crop yield, improve produce quality and reduce costs. The RoboCrop team has teamed up with Kent fruit farmers Bardsley England to prove the commercial, environmental and health benefits of using advanced robotics in the agricultural sector.

Automation experts at the MTC's facilities in Liverpool and Coventry developed a bespoke payload for Spot to allow detailed inspection of Bardsley's fruit crops.

The robot's on-board computer and robotic camera combines with a specially-designed crop-inspecting image processing system to scan crops for quality, ripeness, pests and diseases. The process means that chemicals would only be applied where and when required, avoiding the need to spray entire fields and orchards. Data collected by the robot can be viewed in real time.

In a statement, Harry Fisher, research engineer at the MTC, said: "The MTC, by partnering with Bardsley England and Boston Dynamics, has been able to demonstrate how using advanced robotics can create a more sustainable and productive UK agricultural sector. Importantly, the inspection payload that has been developed specifically for this project can easily be adapted to other industries.”

The use of autonomous robots in agriculture has previously been challenging because of terrain, plot sizes and poor implementation.

MTC engineers, Harry Fisher (left) and Joel Kellam with RoboCrop (Image: MTC)

The RoboCrop project, funded by Innovate UK, has demonstrated that combining artificial intelligence and sophisticated vision systems with agile robots can reap huge benefits that include better planning and the ability to quantify yields, early disease detection and the ability to target pesticides and herbicides exactly when and where required, and a reduction in costs using less chemicals and manual labour.

Further benefits include a reduction in chemicals being emitted into the environment, improving soil quality; and less use of machinery powered by fossil fuels.

MTC robotics engineers have been working with Boston Dynamics to make use of the capabilities of Spot, which can navigate difficult terrain, climb steps and go to places inaccessible to most robots. As well as agriculture the robot has roles to play in construction and infrastructure projects.