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Ontario Grain Farmer Magazine is the flagship publication of Grain Farmers of Ontario and a source of information for our province’s grain farmers. 

Bringing robots to field crops

EXPLORING THE POTENTIAL

THE ROAMIO-HCT. PHOTO COURTESY OF KRISTEN OBEID.

THE LATEST IN cutting-edge robotics is coming to a field near you — sooner than you think. A new team of in-field innovation enthusiasts have been working diligently over the past year to test, demonstrate, and troubleshoot robotic applications in a variety of Ontario crops, bringing the reality of robots within reach for farmers within this decade.

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WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

• Each robot model tested was unique, with some powered by batteries and others by diesel.
• Some robots struggled to work effectively in areas with heavy crop residue or cover crops.
• Researchers note there are only a handful of working robotic units in North America, and since Ontario offers such a wide range of crops and growing conditions, we have the ideal environment for testing these systems.
• Soil sampling is another task that autonomous robots could shoulder for farmers and agronomists.

The Ag Robotics Working Group came together in early 2021 when Haggerty Creek AgRobotics approached the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) to help them test their Naio Oz robot in vegetable crops. The idea was to test and demonstrate the robot in a variety of crops to evaluate the machine’s applications, limitations, and potential in Ontario crops. As a result, the group quickly expanded to include industry representatives, grower organizations, and processors. Throughout the growing season the robot was tested in eight different vegetable crops. And by August 2021, two more robotics companies joined the group, seeking to participate in the demonstrations and weekly meetings to review progress and troubleshoot challenges.

The group demonstrated autonomous robots from four manufacturers throughout the 2021 season, including some from Europe and companies right here in Canada. The participating robotics companies included Naio Technologies, Nexus Robotics, Korechi Innovations, and Raven Industries OmniPower (formerly DOT). Four robot models were tested, with a fifth, larger model expected to arrive in fall 2021 to be tested in larger field crop applications.

“The main goal of the new Ag Robotics Working Group is to see how this technology could fit into Ontario production systems,” explains Kristen Obeid, OMAFRA horticulture weed specialist. The group has been busy this year, hosting more than 30 farmer demonstrations in a variety of crops, regularly meeting to discuss outcomes, and planning the continuation of this cutting-edge applied research. Obeid outlines the groups three priorities — demonstrating new autonomous robotics to farmers, securing funding sources to continue research, and determining future targeted research needs for various cropping systems with participating robotics companies.

TESTING AND TROUBLE SHOOTING

“Autonomous robots could offer a new solution to common industry challenges like resistant weeds, labour shortages, and nutrient management,” says Chuck Baresich, general manager of Haggerty Creek, explaining how this new technology can be applied to Ontario field crops. “The challenge is that many of these existing models are designed for high-value crops, like vegetables,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we created the working group — to learn more about the machines, test them in as many field crops and conditions as we could, and hear from growers as they raised practical questions and suggested applications for the robots.”

Haggerty Creek AgRobotics is a new division of Haggerty Creek, a crop inputs and grain marketing company in Bothwell, Ontario. Baresich says Haggerty Creek got into precision agriculture in 2004, but had always had an interest in robotic applications in field crops. That is why, in 2018, he made the decision to create an autonomy division, focused on bringing robotic applications to field crops in Ontario.

Haggerty Creek participated in testing select autonomous robot models in field crops throughout the growing season, allowing the working group to evaluate field conditions and applications for the machines. The team identified uses for the robots in field crops such as precision broadcasting of fertilizer and cover crops, soil sampling and testing, passive weeding, and cultivation. A larger robot model, the Naio Dino is expected to arrive in Ontario from its manufacturer in France this fall for further field crop testing.

Each robot model tested was unique, with some powered by batteries and others by diesel. Performance depended on field conditions, with some struggling to work effectively in areas with heavy crop residue or cover crops.

“We’re still at the proof-of-concept phase,” says Darren Robinson, a professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. “But the collaboration and research being conducted through this robotic working group is helping autonomous robotics gain momentum.”

Obeid says the working group recently identified machine tire size as a concern for different soil types and cropping systems. “The resulting discussion was a terrific opportunity for representatives from participating robotics companies to trouble-shoot and work to improve the machines, making them as beneficial to Ontario cropping systems as possible.”

FINDING A FIT FOR FIELD CROPS

Baresich has already identified specific applications for managing resistant weeds in crops such as no-till soybeans.

“These robots could be used to recognize and target (kill) problem weeds like Horse-nettle and Canada fleabane to remove them from the crop, and ultimately help fight the growing resistance problem. This targeted approach could allow robotic models to cover sufficient acres and be economically viable,” he says.

Soil sampling is another task Baresich predicts autonomous robots could shoulder for farmers and agronomists. He notes the increasing labour requirements to sample soil as nutrient management systems such as the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program (Right Source, Right Rate, Right Time, Right Place) are being implemented.

“Robots could be deployed to collect samples with minimal damage to crops, while saving countless labour hours,” he explains. And because these are still early days in robotic development and applications, Baresich predicts we have only touched the surface of opportunities such as soil sampling, saying there could be so many more sensors that could be added to these machines to gather endless amounts of data to improve soil and crop performance.

“Depending on the application, we could see robotics in Ontario fields sooner than later,” says Robinson. “I predict within the next five to 10 years.”

WORK CONTINUES

Plans are already underway to continue the Ag Robotics Working Group’s research and machine testing in 2022 and beyond.

“There are only a handful of working robotic units in North America,” notes Robinson. “And since Ontario offers such a wide range of crops and growing conditions, we’ve got the ideal environment for testing these systems.”

Robinson will oversee the testing and measuring robotics’ performance in 2022 at the University of Guelph Ridgetown Campus. He says the demonstrations will also continue in field crop trials, where practical applications in multiple crops can be thoroughly tested.

“We’ve proven the technology works this year, showing robots can be successfully deployed in Ontario fields,” says Baresich. “Our next steps are to determine how to reliably ramp these up to commercial scale levels where growers feel confident in the machine’s performance.”

A number of farmers in Ontario have even ordered their own autonomous robots for next year’s growing season. These early adopters have been added to the working group to expand the testing results.

The working group wasn’t in Obeid’s plans for 2021, but after spending much of the past year with the robots, she says she is grateful for the opportunity to work with such innovative technology and leaders. She cannot wait to continue the research and learning in 2022 and beyond to bring the opportunities the robots can offer.

“The only limit to the robots is your imagination.” she says. •

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