“Robot swarms will enable truly precise agriculture – targeted spraying of individual plants, and selective harvesting of crops that are actually ripe – rather than treating an entire field identically,” comments Alan Millard, one of the speakers at a forthcoming Agri-Tech East event which is looking at swarm robotics for agri-food.
He says that the robots are moving out of the lab: “The Small Robot Company and Earth Rover are companies with the closest examples of swarm-sized agri-food robots in the UK.
Dr Alan Millard is a Lecturer in Robotics at the University of Plymouth. He is investigating methods of engineering swarm robotic systems capable of long-term autonomy, which can operate for extended periods of time without human intervention.
This involves developing algorithms that enable robot swarms to adapt to changing environments while simultaneously detecting, diagnosing, and recovering from faults in individual robots that may disturb swarm behaviour.
On the applied side, his research focuses on agricultural applications of swarm robotic technology. He explains: “I’m currently working on a project called ‘Automated Brassica harvesting in Cornwall’ that is investigating methods of coordinating autonomous cauliflower harvesting robots (developed by my colleague Martin Stoelen) in collaboration with Cornish food producers.
“I’m also exploring the potential of swarm robotics in cereal harvesting – simulating swarm-scale models of the Hands Free Hectare project, with multiple autonomous tractors offloading wheat from autonomous combine harvesters.
This work aims to determine whether fleets of (relatively) small agricultural vehicles (such as compact tractors) can be used to minimise soil compaction while ensuring an uninterrupted harvest.
“In addition to harvesting robots, I’m researching applications of robot swarms for soil / plant health monitoring. In particular, I’m interested in non-invasive sensing methods (e.g image processing / acoustic detection of pests) that can provide real-time on-farm feedback.
Swarm robots – small, simple and inexpensive – promise to reverse the trend in agriculture towards ever bigger machines. These little workers behave autonomously, interacting with each other and the environment to achieve the desired outcome. The benefits include less damage to soil structure and greater precision for weeding and harvesting. But how close is this to reality and what is needed to ensure their safe, responsible usage on-farm?
Experts with different perspectives will be discussing these issues at the Agri-Tech East event ‘Swarm Robotics – the agri-workforce of the future?’
Speakers include Sam Watson Jones, co-founder of the Small Robot Company, pioneer of ‘robots as a service’; Alan Millard, who is exploring the potential of swarm robots in automating cereal and brassica harvesting; Mark Nicholson, a safety specialist who warns there is currently ‘inadequate regulatory oversight to support farmers’; David Rose, who calls for a mature debate about the technology; and Clive Blacker of Precision Decisions, who will provide insights from the Hands-Free Hectare project.
More information about: ‘Swarm Robotics – the agri-workforce of the future?’ being held on 25 April 2019 at Future Business Centre, Kings Hedges Road Cambridge, CB4 2HY can be found at www.agri-tech-e.co.uk/events