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Spot the robot dog could ‘revolutionise’ farming

25 March, 2022

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with potential to revolutionise agriculture. Based on Spot, the four-legged robotic “dog” developed by Boston Dynamics, the mobile platform combines robotics, automation, artificial intelligence and vision systems to inspect crops for ripeness and quality, and to detect diseases and pests.

The researchers, from the UK’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), believe that the platform could cut the amount of chemicals and pesticides used in agriculture “drastically”, as well as increasing crop yield and improving produce quality, and reducing costs.

The RoboCrop project has been funded by the Innovate UK organisation, backed by the UK Government. The MTC researchers have been working with the UK fruit grower, Bardsley England, to develop the technology. Founded in 1892, Bardsley has 26 sites across the UK covering 850 hectares and employing 420 people. It supplies 35,000 tonnes of fruit each year, mainly to supermarkets.

Chief executive Ben Bardsley says the company is aiming to produce carbon-neutral crops. The use of robots will help it to achieve a goal of automating its orchards by 2030, resulting in an expected 25% reduction in costs and a 35% increase in net revenues.

The global farming industry, Bardsley adds, “is going through a great change and we need to transform how we grow. Growers need to be incentivised not for what they grow, but how they grow it.”

Until now, using autonomous robots in agriculture has been a challenge because of the uneven terrain, variable plot sizes and poor implementation. The RoboCrop project takes advantage of Spot’s abilities to navigate difficult terrain and go to places that would defeat most robots.

Automation experts at the MTC’s sites in Liverpool and Coventry developed a bespoke payload for the robot that allows it to perform detailed inspections of Bardsley's fruit crops. An on-board computer and 4K camera are combined with a bespoke image-processing system to scan crops for quality, ripeness, pests and diseases. It can detect the size of fruit such as apples, how many are on a tree and whether the crop is healthy. The data collected can be viewed in real time.

Potential benefits of robot-based crop inspection include:
• early detection of diseases, and the ability to target pesticides and herbicides exactly when and where needed, thus avoiding the need to spray entire fields and orchards;
• costs savings as a result of using less chemicals and manual labour;
• reducing the release of chemicals into the environment, thus improving soil quality;
• performing around-the-clock inspections of crops;
• improved planning;
• the ability to quantify yields; and
• a reduced need for farm machinery powered by fossil fuels.

The Robocrop crop-inspecting robot with MTC engineers Harry Fisher and Joel Kellam
Image: MTC

MTC research engineer Harry Fisher says that the project has demonstrated how using advanced robotics can create a more sustainable and productive UK agricultural sector. “Importantly, the inspection payload that has been developed specifically for this project can easily be adapted to other industries.” For example, the go-anywhere robot could increase efficiency and reduce safety risks in construction and infrastructure projects.

The MTC is one of a handful of organisations around the world that is making Spot available to businesses in any sector to investigate how the robot could help to boost efficiency, improve manufacturing processes, and reduce risks in dangerous working environments.

Visitors to the upcoming Drive & Controls Show in the UK will be able to meet Spot and chat to MTC engineers about potential applications for the robot.

A video about the RoboCrop project can be viewed online.

MTC:  Twitter   LinkedIn

Boston Dynamics:  Twitter  LinkedIn  Facebook

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