Sunday, January 25, 2015

Agricultural robotics related projects funded under Horizon 2020

While many projects funded under its rules are still running, the EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7), as a basis for new funding, has run its course, and has been replaced by Horizon 2020, The EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, which began in 2014 and runs through 2020.

Included under H2020's Digital Agenda, Robotics is only a small part of the overall funding framework. Nevertheless it includes “over 100 collaborative projects.”

The first H2020 call for proposals was issued last year, and on January 13th the list of robotics projects funded as a result was announced. Frank Tobe of The Robot Report has already covered this announcement and placed it in context.

Agriculture is one of four “priority domains” for robotics funding under H2020, and, of these newly funded (or refunded) projects, two – Flourish and SWEEPER – are explicitly related to agriculture.

Flourish, which has been funded at just over €3.5 Million for 42 months, will be managed by Cyrill Stachniss of the University of Bonn, Germany. It is described both in the H2020 document and on the university's website as follows: “To feed a growing world population with the given amount of available farm land, we must develop new methods of sustainable farming that increase yield while reducing reliance on herbicides and pesticides. Precision agricultural techniques seek to address this challenge by monitoring key indicators of crop health and targeting treatment only to plants that need it. This is a time consuming and expensive activity and while there has been great progress on autonomous farm robots, most systems have been developed to solve only specialized tasks. This lack of flexibility poses a high risk of no return on investment for farmers. The goal of the Flourish project is to bridge the gap between the current and desired capabilities of agricultural robots by developing an adaptable robotic solution for precision farming. By combining the aerial survey capabilities of a small autonomous multi-copter Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with a multi-purpose agricultural Unmanned Ground Vehicle, the system will be able to survey a field from the air, perform targeted intervention on the ground, and provide detailed information for decision support, all with minimal user intervention. The system can be adapted to a wide range of crops by choosing different sensors and ground treatment packages. This development requires improvements in technological abilities for safe accurate navigation within farms, coordinated multi-robot mission planning that enables large field survey even with short UAV flight times, multispectral three-dimensional mapping with high temporal and spatial resolution, ground intervention tools and techniques, data analysis tools for crop monitoring and weed detection, and user interface design to support agricultural decision making. As these aspects are addressed in Flourish, the project will unlock new prospects for commercial agricultural robotics in the near future.”

SWEEPER, which has been funded at just over €4 Million for 36 months, will be managed by Jan Bontsema of Wageningen UR, Netherlands. It is described in the H2020 document as follows: “In modern greenhouses there is a high demand to automate labour. The availability of a skilled workforce that accepts repetitive tasks in the harsh climate conditions of a greenhouse is decreasing rapidly. The resulting increase in labour costs and reduced capacity puts major pressure on the competitiveness of the European greenhouse sector. Present robotization of this labour has entered a high level of technological readiness. However, a gap remains which halts the transition from science to economic and societal impact; the so called ‘Technological Innovation Gap’. In the EU-FP7-project CROPS, extensive research has been performed on agricultural robotics. One of the applications was a sweet pepper harvesting robot. It was shown that such a robot is economically and technically viable. The proven hardware and software modules (TRL: 6) developed in CROPS will be used as the groundwork. The successful CROPS software modules based on the Robotic-Operating-System (ROS) will be maintained and expanded in SWEEPER. Also the gripper end-effector will be retained. This patent pending module is able to grasp the sweet pepper without the need of an accurate measurement of the position and orientation of the fruit. In several experiments, it turned out that different growers use different cropping systems ranging in crop density. In SWEEPER, the cropping system itself will be optimized to facilitate robotic harvesting. In CROPS it was concluded that instead of a 9DOF, a 4DOF robot arm is sufficient, greatly reducing costs. To improve the level of robotic cognitive abilities, plant models will be applied to approximate location of sweet peppers. This “model-based vision” will increase and speed up fruit detection. Based on the insights of CROPS, sensors will be placed onto the gripper only. Also a LightField sensor will be introduced, which is able to record both colour and 3D information simultaneously.” The “CROPS” referred to above is Clever Robots for Crops, a program of the 7th Framework, which preceded H2020.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Iowa State professors developing weeding robot

This isn't exactly news in the sense of having been published in the last few days, but the field is still moving slowly enough that a year-old article remains relevant.

Professors Lie Tang and Kathleen Delate of Iowa State University have been developing a weeding robot, which, according to a just-published NYTimes article they hope to have in testing next spring.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

human population projections raised

Say goodbye to anything resembling wilderness in the parts of Africa that aren't desert, if a new projection of human population growth turns out to be accurate.

The difference between old predictions for Africa and the new projection is more than 2 billion people, for a total of more than 4 billion people and still growing by the year 2100, pushing the world population to 11 billion, despite a predicted decline in Asia.

So many mouths to feed, we must do everything possible to feed them, or so goes the argument, used to justify practices that produce maximum yield (in the short term), while glossing over their long-term and collateral effects – exhausting soils, polluting streams and oceans, further contributing to climate change, and ensnaring farmers in a cycle of debt.

What we absolutely must do is to protect remaining arable land – preserving and gradually improving its productivity – protecting it both from farming methods that sacrifice long-term health for short-term gains and from the urban sprawl that takes good land out of production, and to reverse that sprawl as much as possible, regreening land that had been covered in concrete and pavement.

We must also find a way to maintain production without ruining the land and the planet as a whole in the process.

But, just as importantly, we must recognize that what hunger there is at this time is caused by poverty and insufficient local production, not by a global shortfall in food production. Rather, the global market suffers from a glut of commodities and a failure to maintain prices at levels sufficient to cover farmers' costs of production. It also suffers in the sense of operating to provide for human need because some can afford to pay more for grain-fed meat, even for fuel produced from grain, than others can afford to pay for the grain required to produce it, despite low efficiencies of conversion.

So long as the use of agricultural commodities (not just crop wastes) for fuel competes with their use in the production of food, we haven't yet reached anything resembling a production crisis. Let's not allow ourselves to be rushed into foolish choices. The pressure of world population isn't a crisis we can fix and forget; it will be with us for a very long time, long past the year 2100. We must find ways of dealing with it that don't sacrifice all else on the altar of maximum production.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Robot Report profiles 27 companies involved in agricultural robotics

Frank Tobe, author of The Robot Report has been following the development of agricultural robotics for years. In an article published late last week and cross-posted on Robohub.orb, he brings together profiles of 27 or the most promising efforts he's learned about.

Friday, November 14, 2014

robotic gardeners & the future of food

Technologies developed for cultivating food in space and Antarctica will very likely also prove to be applicable to indoor urban farming using artificial light, and perhaps even to open ground farming.

Friday, November 07, 2014

another take on urban farming

This is a more conventional approach to urban farming, examples of which are currently far more common than vertical farms.

thinking about vertical farming and aquaponics

I don't talk much about this, but I do think vertical farming will be an increasingly important contributor to food production in the future, and that it will be highly mechanized almost from the outset. My concern here is with the land that continues to be subject to the need for production and the desire for landscaping, pressures that vertical farming won't relieve soon. So long as we continue to manage land for our own purposes, we need to do a far better, far less destructive job of it!