A new hopping robot that can identify, map and kill weeds for hours at a time, with minimal supervision, was launched by UK start-up HayBeeSee at Agri-Tech East’s REAP Conference. Crop Hopper, a jumping-quadcopter, promises to deliver large-scale precision agriculture that could cut farmers’ herbicide use by 50 per cent or more.
HayBeeSee co-founder Fred Miller has a family farm in Nebraska, USA, and trained as an aerospace engineer. He could see the benefits of using drones, but understood their limitations. So, he set about developing a whole new classification of vehicle using the cutting-edge concept of a jumping robot with a quadcopter underneath to help it hover a short distance above the ground.
Fred explains: “Early weed detection can transform the use of herbicides. When I started out, everyone was saying drones were the answer and it was going to be a $20 billion market within ten years so I got a bit excited. However, drones are subject to flight restrictions and also have a limited flight time, which are major obstacles to their adoption. So I started to consider alternatives.
“The breakthrough was meeting Dr Mirko Kovac at Imperial College London, whose aerial robotics lab we contracted to work with us. We started working together in 2017 and designed the Hopper from scratch. It has carbon-elastic jumping legs, which work like a rubber band, making the jumps five times more energy efficient than a standard quadcopter. It is a totally new class of machinery – not a quadcopter or drone – so it isn’t recognised by the Civil Aviation Authority as a UAV, which is a big advantage.
“Crop Hopper only takes up an area about 10cm square when it lands but has a large scanning radius and hops quickly, so it can map an entire field in a couple of hours. The machine vision data is processed on board, as it’s captured, so the farmer can see immediately where the problems are and consider an effective response.
“Organic controls take longer so Crop Hopper can increase the time window for action, or alternatively can be used to provide a rapid response to persistent weeds thorough precision application of herbicide. We have designed it to provide immediate insights that enable precision application of sprays, which could completely transform how farmers use herbicides.”
HayBeeSee is working with farmers, agronomists and agri-researchers around the world to create a new approach integrating organic-killing with targeted spraying, using the combined daily weed-map updates and killing capability that only Crop Hopper can provide.
Crop Hopper has just completed its first field trials, following a successful seed-funding round of £610,000 awarded by Innovate UK, ESA-BIC and Newable. Thurlow Estate Farms have also been discussing a potential trial of the new Crop Hopper.
Thurlow Estates’ Farms Director, Andrew Crossley, said: “Thurlow Estates have been working with Crop Hopper; a concept that looks interesting as we strive to reduce inputs, target crop protection products more accurately and introduce automation.”
The efficiencies of the Hopper design means it is being investigated as an option for space exploration by NASA. Here in the UK, HayBeeSee’s work is being supported by the Satellite Applications Catapult network, which encourages innovation potential through their Innovate UK project, and ABACO Group UK, whose integration and analytical platform, SITI4Farmer, provides Crop Hopper with earth observation data.
Catapult’s Head of Agriculture, Mark Jarman, added: “It has been exciting working with HayBeeSee and ABACO Group UK to explore how satellite monitoring could automatically inform robotic operation and tackle the variety of issues crop production faces during the growing season. We feel HayBeeSee are well placed to play a pivotal role in enabling change.”
Agri-Tech East hosted the REAP 2019 conference, where HayBeeSee’s Hopper was unveiled; Director Dr Belinda Clarke comments: “This is an exciting application of robotics that addresses one of the major hurdles impacting the deployment of drones – flight restrictions.
“HayBeeSee’s invention shows how a number of technologies – such as remote sensing, energy efficiency, machine vision, precision agriculture – are converging, and the price point is falling, lowering the cost of adoption. These types of innovation will help to improve the future productivity and profitability of agriculture while reducing environmental impacts.”