Robots rule at Fira in Toulouse

The French city of Toulouse “booms” when it comes to innovation. For example, aircraft manufacturer Airbus has its head office there and the place is home to robot manufacturer Naïo Technologies. And the world’s largest IoT (Internet of Things) campus called IoT Valley is currently under construction.

International Forum of Agricultural Robots
4 years ago, Naïo Technologies initiated the first edition of Fira, the International Forum of Agricultural Robots, with the aim of exchanging and sharing knowledge. This year, the fourth edition took place, and due to the rapid growth of the event, Naïo transferred its organisation to Gofar, the Global Organisation for Agricultural Robots.

The previous robot, a much smaller one with a Delta arm and 1 nozzle, had too small a capacity and is now marketed as a scouting robot. The 2.04 m wide Avo detects weeds with RGB cameras and its own light source and sprays them with 1 or more of the 52 nozzles. The electric robot must be able to work 12 to 16 hours in a row. It will be tested in 2020 and 30 zero series models will follow in 2021 for around € 80,000. - Photos: René Koerhuis
Apart from Naïo, Axema and RobAgri are also represented in Gofar. Axema is the French branch organisation of machine manufacturers and RobAgri is the French branch organisation of manufacturers of agricultural robots initiated in November 2017, with currently already 65 (!) members.

From Avo to Trektor
With names such as Avo, Bakus, ChickenBoy, Dino, Robotti, Spoutnic, Trooper and even Trektor, there is no lack of creativity in that area alone. An estimated 80% of the 20 robots present at the Fira were from France. The majority of them focus on weed recognition and control in row cultures.

That’s not surprising, because established manufacturers such as CNH and John Deere as well as robot manufacturers expect that robots can really make a difference there. On the one hand because of discussions around crop protection chemicals like glyphosate, and on the other because of the lack of (affordable) staff to do the weeding.

Weed recognition
Some of the (weed control) robots have already been for sale for some time, such as Robotti from AgroIntelli and Dino from Naïo. They focus on the robot itself, and not or not specifically on the recognition of weeds or on the implement and the machine. Other manufacturers, on the other hand, focus primarily on weed recognition, such as Bosch Deepfield Robotics and Odd.Bot.

Bosch Deepfield Robotics is a start-up and future spin-off from Bosch Rexroth, with 8 employees working on Aquila, for example. This is a deep learning-based camera module for weed recognition, classification and mapping. Manufacturers can integrate this into their machines.

How to control weeds?
The thoughts on the (best) method of weed control vary. Most manufacturers opt for the hoe and / or the spraying nozzle, while French company Green Shield Technology is testing with laser light for controlling small weeds in sugar beet. This would require 150 watts at rest and 250 watts during one millisecond for weed control.

It is striking how many manufacturers develop their own hardware and especially their weed detection and recognition software. Apparently this still contains an important distinctive capacity or core competence.

Weed detection and control
Other manufacturers focus on weed detection and control, such as Swiss ecoRobotix with its new Avo robot with 52 nozzles at 2.04 m working width. Avo even world debuted at the Fira. The somewhat similar to a tractor-like and costing € 30,000 E-Tract from French Elatec can be equipped as of next year with cameras for weed recognition in maize and beans. The company’s ultimate goal is to detect and mechanically eliminate weeds in carrots.

For navigation you can choose from a (Trimble) RTK gps system or camera guidance with 3D cameras from IFM Electronic at € 10,000 to € 20,000 extra. The company is currently working on a weed detection system with RGB cameras (inset) for rows of maize and beans with the ultimate goal of detecting weeds in carrots.
In wine producing country France, developers are (of course) also eagerly working on robots for vineyards and orchards. A number of them were on display. Such as the Bakus by Vitibot, Ted by Naïo and the VineScout. Exxact Robotics, the brand new “robot spin-off” from field sprayer and beet harvester manufacturer Exel Industries, was present, but not yet with its own robot(s).

Which business models?
During the various round table discussions, attention was also given to suitable business models for robot technology. Large, established manufacturers mainly wonder (and rightly so) to what extent the mostly starting robot manufacturers are going to service their technically advanced robots, and whether they can still supply parts in 10 years’ time. Several of them will no longer exist by that time.

For (worldwide) distribution, robot manufacturers cannot help but work with dealers, and they all intend to do so after direct sales of the first units. Some opt for sale, such as AgroIntelli and Naïo, but also Elatec and Sitia (Trektor), while others such as the Australian SwarmFarm opt for rental and / or lease.

Safety is a primary argument for its use: both on (very) steep slopes and with crop protection. With its 75 kWh lithium-ion batteries, the 2.5 ton Bakus can work for up to 10 hours. The price is roughly the same as that of a conventional portal tractor.
Other options are Robots as a Service (RaaS), or contracting by manufacturers or service providers. With such subscription forms, the manufacturer remains the owner of the product. That not only seems to be a social trend, it also motivates providers to continue to support their products.

Australia as testing ground?
Rohan Rainbow from Australian company Ag Tech Centric invited every manufacturer to come and test its robots in his vast country. “Earlier technologies such as the autopilot and controlled traffic farming (CTF), were introduced very quickly here. And Australia is ready (as a testing ground) for both small robots and autonomous tractors with 250 to 450 hp. Because finding capable operators is almost impossible.”

Such as local temperatures, humidity, biomass (NDVI) and (other) data for phenotyping. VineScout can map 3.5 ha per day. Targeted customers include cooperating winegrowers or contractors because the average European vineyard is 3 ha and 30 ha is needed to break even.
Lack of legislation
Rainbow sees the lack of legislation (in Australia) as an opportunity to set up the world’s first “Code of Practice” for autonomous agricultural vehicles. Or a code of conduct initiated by practice. Based on that, he expects 2020 to be the year of the breakthrough of autonomous agricultural vehicles.

Peter Pickel from John Deere added: “Once man has accepted that autonomous vehicles are safer than man-driven vehicles, acceptance accelerates and the legislator follows. That is within now and 10 years. After all, most agricultural accidents occur as a result of human error.”




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