AgRobotics Group Hopes Autonomous Robots Are Adopted on Ontario Farms
Preliminary trials using autonomous weeding machines in annual vegetable crops appear so promising that the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)’s weed management specialist in horticultural crops hopes robots will be common in Ontario’s horticultural systems within 10 years
Kristen Obeid, Chair of Ontario’s AgRobotics Working Group (ARWG), believes that robots can mitigate many challenges in horticulture, especially tasks that require a lot of hand labour. “There is a huge interest in automation,” said Obeid.
But there are still matters about the practicality of using specific robots for different crops, their ease of use and the return on investment for farmers.
It all began with a telephone call to Obeid in March, 2021. Chuck Baresich and Grant Elgie of Haggerty Creek Ltd of Bothwell asked Obeid if she could help them set up some on-farm demonstrations with their recently imported Naïo Oz autonomous weeders.
This resulted in the formation of the AgRobotics Working Group (ARWG) in the spring of 2021. The initial group consisted of 10 persons, but has since expanded to 100, including membership from across Canada and internationally (such as United States, France, Demark) and continues to grow.
This group has representatives from all levels of government (federal, provincial and municipal) research institutions, universities, colleges, technology companies, grower associations, growers and related agri-businesses. The group meets via Zoom weekly to network and build cross-functional teams to investigate and third party verify new opportunities in Ontario production systems.
“The goal is to verify new technologies in Ontario production systems, to ensure the robots/technologies actually do what they’re supposed to do so that the growers don’t have to be the guinea pigs. Basically, we are trying to figure out the bugs first so the growers don’t have to,” explained Obeid.
“We are testing and demonstrating the technologies to ensure they meet the expectations of the growers and make economic sense. Our group hopes to initially de-risk adoption of new technologies to make the path to on-farm adoption quicker and easier.”
The original 2021 trials involved two Naïo Oz autonomous weeders which were trialled in eight different crops across Ontario, including Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, hemp, haskaps, Christmas trees, onions, carrots and strawberries.
In 2022 the team compared many different robots (Naïo Oz, Naïo Dino, FarmDroid FD20, Korechi RoamIO and Nexus La Cheve (the Goat) to grower standard treatments. The robots do various tasks such as seeding, weeding, mowing and soil sampling. The team collected data on weed suppression, crop health, soil compaction, yield and labour usage.
The sugar beet trials used the Farm Droid–FD20, a solar-powered unit that was developed for the organic Danish sugar beet industry, said Obeid. “It seeds and weeds. It geo-references every seed so it can do both intra and inter-row weeding.”
Results show that the Farm Droid FD20 planted and weeded sugar beets had higher yields and sugar content than the conventionally-treated beets in the comparison plots. Despite their initial apprehension, participating farmers reported similar success rates with the rutabagas, she added.
“The growers who had test plots with the Farm Droid FD20 last year want to use them again this year.”
“We’ve been learning from this past year. It’s challenging to work with new technologies in high-value crops – we don’t want to lose the crops.”
The ARWG is expanding this year’s research to new robots, tasks, crops and locations across Ontario. Obeid said the group is excited to have a Naïo Ted robot coming this spring from France.
The Ted is used in vineyards to do tasks such as hilling, de-hilling, cultivating, vine hedging and yield estimation. The group also hopes the Ted can be used to manage powdery and downy mildew in grapes, using UV-C technology. The Ted will be in Niagara this season, along with an autonomous orchard sprayer from Hol Spraying Systems, Netherlands.
The working group established several subcommittees for specific crops or technologies, including the apple agrobotics subcommittee and drone subcommittee. Members also collaborate with companies interested in designing autonomous agricultural platforms or developing algorithms for specific crops to aid in A.I recognition by the robots.
Despite the ARWG’s exponential growth, Obeid stressed that there is still much to learn.
“There are also many other opportunities to explore, especially robots that harvest different crops.”
But the AgRobotics chairperson insists, “In 10 years’ time, I think the horticultural landscape is going to look very different. This is the future. The drivers for automation will continue to increase over time. Large opportunities exist for robotic solutions as long as the economics work for the grower and the technology company.”
“The technologies that are sustainable – both environmentally and economically, that address labour challenges, have flexible combination options and are adaptive for interoperability within the farming operation – will be the first to be adopted.”
Obeid concluded, laughing, “So far we’re learning how they work, but you must read the manual first! And watch for Field Trials and Demonstration days this summer. ”