The triumphs and challenges facing Agriculture 4.0

26th February 2021
Alex Lynn

Agriculture 4.0 is the latest revolution in agriculture, something that has been integral to the human way of life since the dawn of time, in one form or another. Agriculture 4.0 is the introduction of AI and smart machines into the agriculture the industry, and has grown to such an extent that is now the world’s third largest robotics market.

In a webinar hosted by Matin Laehy, maxon’s Sales Engineer for Ireland, he offered his expert opinion on Agriculture 4.0, with a focus on autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs), autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), aeronautical unmanned vehicles (AUVs) and automation intensive applications, such as vertical farming.

Looking at the drivers and obstacles facing Agriculture 4.0 as it begins to boom, Laehy said: “The world population will reach about ten billion by 2050, and food production will require a 70% increase in order to meet this demand. This challenge is also exasperated by resource depletion and climate change as well as increased pressure on arable land reserves due to urbanisation.”

One of the barriers the agriculture industry faces when trying to evolve to meet these challenges, is that farmers can be notoriously risk-adverse, and so investing in novel and sometimes very complex technologies isn’t always something that they are knocking down doors to try. Other barriers include the current level of government support, regulation, and investment, as currently what is being put in does not match with what we need to get out of agriculture.

However, despite these challenges, robotics is already showing great progress in seeding and weeding markets, making agriculture the third largest market for professional robotics, behind only industry and logistics. Autonomous and remotely controllable machines are both becoming more common for farmers and food producers as Agriculture 4.0 continues to take hold.

What is an AGV?

AGVs – or autonomous guided vehicle – are primarily designed to transport materials, and have had a major presence in the logistics industry for some time, as they allow goods to be moved without any human intervention. Using a plethora of sensors an AGV can adapt to ground conditions and stop itself from running into obstacles; however, it isn’t clever enough to go around them.

There are two types of guidance systems associated with AGVs - wire guidance and opti-guidance. Using wire guidance, an AGV moves by following a path that has been plotted along the ground, most commonly using wires or metal rails. The robot detects the signal transmitted from those wires and follows it, almost as if it were running on a railway track. The problem with wire guidance is that modifying the track after it has been built can be a great deal of work, limiting flexibility. However, it still provides a good solution for simpler applications.

The second type of guidance system, opti-guidance, is a simpler alternative and lets the AGV use onboard computers to follow a painted line on the ground. This also falls short of complete flexibility, but can be done without the rigid and often extensive infrastructure work that needs to be completed for wire guidance. With minimal intelligence on board, an AGV can obey programming instructions.

Overall, an AGV is highly useful in agriculture, in applications where a set path can be followed, and any unexpected obstacles easily moved out of the way.

What is an AMR?

An AMR – or autonomous mobile robot – is a more flexible and more autonomous robot, and doesn’t require the same start-up costs associated with AGVs, despite relying on more sophisticated technology.

An AMR can use a LIDAR system to move thanks to a network of reflectors integrated into its environment.

Leahy explained: “The robot is equipped with a rotating laser, it moves using the principle of odometry and uses the reflectors to define its path. It's easy to modify the robot’s path using the supervision software that's included with the system. Laser guidance is currently one of the most reliable technologies on the market for AMRs.”

LIDAR isn’t the only option for AMRs however, and a geo-guidance system can also be used. A geo-guidance system requires a map of facilities to be created, instead of infrastructure development that the LIDAR system needs. Using geo-guidance, the AMR can find its way around and calculate its path autonomously. The mapping of the robot’s operating environment can be modified at any time without infrastructure changes, making it the most flexible technology covered so far.

All of this sophisticated software that allows AMRs to move around autonomously and calculate their paths as needed means that one of the applications AMRs have found is on the Mars Rover. Much like in agriculture, the conditions on Mars are incredibly harsh, so it goes without saying that if an AMR can survive on the Red Planet, it can survive in a field as well. Because of this, AMRs are typically used in applications for agriculture such as field robotics, to do mundane tasks like planting, spraying, weeding and harvesting.

What are AUVs?

AUVs – or aeronautical unmanned vehicles – are a very dynamic option, and a relatively young technology, although it is expected to grow rapidly. AUVs have the potential to be extremely useful to agriculture, even if the concept of using drones in their fields is still alien to a lot of farmers.

Leahy said: “Agri-drones serve two main purposes. One is to capture the aerial imagery and provide real-time data on crop and herd health. And the second is for selective spraying techniques, as drones have the potential to improve chemical spraying accuracy and efficiency. Also selective screening techniques require fewer chemicals, which has a knock on effect of environmental and economic benefits, such as a reduction in water consumption and less overspill.”

Other benefits to AUVs in agriculture are that drones are in the air instead of on the ground, meaning that there is no heavy machinery on the soil, and farmers can avoid additional soil compaction.

One of the more interesting applications that AUVs have seen is with Irish hill farmers, who have employed AUVs to herd sheep and perform headcounts.

Vertical farming

Vertical farming is the practice of growing plants in fully controlled conditions, usually stacked and under artificial light.

Vertical farming offers a potential yield 300 times larger than the yield per-hectare in traditional farming, as well as eliminating the need for farms to be in certain climates and environments, which means that the logistical costs of delivering food to customers can also be decreased. Because of this, vertical farms can significantly benefit from automation, which will help the agri-industry to reach the production goals needed to remain in step with the increasing global population.

Leahy explained: “The vertical farming enterprise is having large capital outlays with high day-to-day operational costs, and labour remains the single highest operating cost for even the most well capitalised vertical farms in the world. So automation and economies of scale can aid in minimising operational costs as well as aiding in the elimination of pests and diseases that might enter the vertical farm to human transmission.”

Overall, the ability of the technology of Agriculture 4.0 to overcome the various challenges it faces will likely determine the future of farming in the modern age, and hopefully eliminate world food shortages as the population continues to grow.

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