Tuesday’s showers were nice, but it remains very dry. What to do about desiccation and failed harvests? Robots working the land with cameras and lasers could be the answer. ‘Produces a 20 percent larger harvest.’
This article is from the Brabants Dagblad. Every day a selection of the best articles from the newspapers and magazines appears on NU.nl. You can read more about that here.
“Look, this is what you get when you send a group of ICT people to the country.” Arend Koekkoek watches the Robot One drive through a field of red cabbage. A square box with ten arms with various tools underneath it drives along the crop. Lasers burn away the weeds between the young cabbage plants. Only the puffs of smoke betray their deadly power. A rotating cutter ensures airy soil.
Robot One is the first commercial agricultural robot from Pixelfarming Robotics in Almkerk. It mows, weeds, prunes, hoes and, if desired, also sprays the crops. “One Robot One replaces five farm workers, and he’s never sick. He always shows up.”
Director Arend Koekkoek (51) is an IT professional by training. His father was a biologist, CDA politician in village politics, and environmental activist. Of course son Arend also got something from it.
“My engineering company writes software for logistics in the recycling industry. My father asked: ‘How is it possible that you do such smart things with the computers while we are still worrying so much out on the land?’ Then we philosophically came up with the question: “Could we make food without manual labor? If we work the land smartly, it will also be better for the world. We are researching how we can grow vegetables on Mars, but here agriculture has actually had fifty years stopped. The tractors and equipment became bigger and heavier.”
Back to the drought. The Netherlands has enough water. Just think back to spring, it can rain mercilessly. But farmers want to go on the land in the spring and that is not possible if the soil is too wet, the equipment sinks and the soil is turned into mud. The groundwater level is therefore lowered by the water boards so that the fields can be worked. If it is then dry and hot for weeks, the problems loom.
Researchers at Wageningen University & Research suggest that there are two solutions: to retain water for longer by giving streams and rivers more space, and robotics, smart machines that can access the land when it is very wet. There are a handful of companies actively developing it. Pixelfarming Robotics, which now employs 25 people, is one of them.
“We started looking at agriculture with an engineer’s eye. How could we grow as many types of vegetables as possible without manual labour. The Robot One weighs less than half of a tractor,” says Koekkoek. He was not bothered by the abundant rainfall on the test fields. If the land is worked with robots in the spring and summer, the groundwater level can remain higher and the top layer dries out much less.
The robot arms weed between the young red cabbage. Photo: Koen Verheijden
And then plowing? Can such a robot plow? Farmers usually plow their soil with crop residues and weeds up to 30 centimeters deep to get rid of the weeds. “Ploughing is not necessary. You can also control the weeds. We do not plow over, but mill furrows in the soil in which we sow. The grass that is between the furrows also retains the water, the roots are a buffer, and it is good for biodiversity. And grassland has a much higher carrying capacity than a plowed field.”
Pixelfarming Robotics works the land with a robot. The device is controlled remotely. Photo: Koen Verheijden
Koekkoek is in favor of multiple crops on one field. Divided into small squares – pixels, hence the name Pixelfarming – which is better against diseases and attracts more insects. For example, oats can be sown between the rows of beans so that the bean fly has no chance. Because the robot can mow with millimeter precision, the wheat can be removed before the beans are harvested. “And without pesticides you have a higher yield, because every time you spray, you also kill part of the crop. But if you stop chemical farming, the amount of manual work needed to keep the weeds in check explodes This is possible with these types of machines without people.”
“But pixel farming with multiple types of vegetables is not necessary. You can also use the Robot One for one large field with white cabbage or whatever you want to grow. The software must become so good that the farmer can show the robot how to manage his field. want, completely weed-free or some species and the artificial intelligence of the Robot One makes it happen.” The machine, which extracts the energy from its own solar panels, has ten arms to work the soil like a mechanical high-tech octopus. Fifteen cameras and scanner see every blade of green and the software assesses whether it is a threat. “The farmer can monitor via the app.”
Robot One is ready to be built in series. “We now have five of them on the road. This year it’s make or break. We actually have to sell five a year to be able to harvest it. The phase that is coming now is incredibly capital intensive. Also in Canada, England and France where we are active there is a lot of interest and we actually want to run two robots to show what we can do.”
According to the entrepreneur, there is enough interest, but actually buying is another matter. The technology is still new and a bit too complicated for the average farmer. And it is also a significant investment, one Robot One costs 249,000 euros. “Now that we are going to sell, we have to pre-finance a lot. It will be a very exciting year.”
A considerable purchase for a farmer, but it also saves on personnel costs. Moreover, working with the robot gives more yield. “Because the robots can weed well where necessary, you don’t have to use pesticides. That results in a 20 percent larger harvest. The robot can enter the field earlier and therefore harvest earlier. You earn it back.”
The tractor is still needed for that harvesting. There are simply too many kilos of product coming from the land to be able to transport it with the robots.