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Robotic weed control

Deepfield Robotics is stamping out weeds, one at a time

This robot is  designed to work  fields on its own  and mechanically  kill weeds.

The future of weed control could quite possibly be a convergence of cutting-edge robotics with good old-fashioned muscle.

Deepfield Robotics may not be a common name in the field of agriculture, but the small start-up company has under development an innovative solution for weed control. While the company itself has no more than a couple dozen employees, it is a start-up of the Robert Bosch Group, a company with more than 375,000 employees worldwide and more than $70 billion in sales.

The company is a mix of developers, robotics specialists and agricultural engineers. And one of their first projects was on full display at Agritechnica in Hanover, Germany. It was making an impact, literally, on the possible future of precision weed control for agriculture.

The company was showing off its mechanical weed killer. A series of rods are mounted on an agricultural robot platform. These individual rods can “punch” the soil at any given moment. Using a series of highly advanced sensors, the robot moves independently through the field. These special sensors then scan the plants below. Through a series of highly advanced programs, the robot can differentiate what is a weed (at even a very early growing stage) and what is the desirable plant. Weeds are quickly detected, and a rod moves in place to push the young plant into the ground. Sounds simple enough, but watching the machine in action, it was an endless series of “punches” where weeds were present… all automatic, all the time.

The weeding robot is based on what Deepfield Robotics calls its BoniRob robotic platform. Four independently steerable drive wheels can adjust the trackwidth and make the machine highly maneuverable within the field.

The BoniRob platform isn’t limited to the weeding device. Researchers expect this platform to provide additional environmental sensors that can provide producers a wealth of information.

This mock up demonstrates how the robot can “punch” weeds and kill them without the use of herbicides.
This mock up demonstrates how the robot can “punch” weeds and kill them without the use of herbicides. photo: Mark Moore

According to researchers, the unit can work continuously, is highly precise, and can identify weeds in early growth stages. The prototype on display at Agritechnica was 1.80 metres wide with a gasoline generator, electric differential drive and GPS. In essence, it could weed all day, all night, with minimal breaks.

“We are leveraging our expertise in sensor technology, algorithms, and image recognition to make a contribution to improving quality of life, even in areas that are new for Bosch,” says Professor Amos Albert, a robotics expert and general manager of Deepfield Robotics. The robot, which is approximately the size of a compact car, uses video- and lidar-based positioning as well as satellite navigation to find its way around the fields. It knows its position to the nearest centimetre. It also helps minimize the environmental impact of crop farming.

According to the company, here are some specs of the prototype machine:

  • Enables herbicide-free farming;
  • Greater than 90 per cent efficiency;
  • Positioning accuracy of two millimetres; and,
  • It can “knock out” 20 weeds per second, cover one hectare in three hours (with a weed count of 40 weeds per square metre).

While this machine may not be something that will be on larger crop farms anytime soon, the idea of having a machine that can work alone, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, covering fields and taking out weeds — without the use of traditional chemicals — is something to ponder.

And like many companies working on new solutions, the platform on display isn’t going to end with a weeder. Researchers indicated that in development is a machine built on the BoniRob platform that would be able to selectively spray within a field, either in patch or single-plant treatment, in working widths of up to seven metres. The herbicide savings along, the researchers say, could be tremendous.

Mark Moore is a freelance ag writer based in Germany.

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