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Chapter 56 — Robotics in Agriculture and Forestry

Marcel Bergerman, John Billingsley, John Reid and Eldert van Henten

Robotics for agriculture and forestry (A&F) represents the ultimate application of one of our society’s latest and most advanced innovations to its most ancient and important industries. Over the course of history, mechanization and automation increased crop output several orders of magnitude, enabling a geometric growth in population and an increase in quality of life across the globe. Rapid population growth and rising incomes in developing countries, however, require ever larger amounts of A&F output. This chapter addresses robotics for A&F in the form of case studies where robotics is being successfully applied to solve well-identified problems. With respect to plant crops, the focus is on the in-field or in-farm tasks necessary to guarantee a quality crop and, generally speaking, end at harvest time. In the livestock domain, the focus is on breeding and nurturing, exploiting, harvesting, and slaughtering and processing. The chapter is organized in four main sections. The first one explains the scope, in particular, what aspects of robotics for A&F are dealt with in the chapter. The second one discusses the challenges and opportunities associated with the application of robotics to A&F. The third section is the core of the chapter, presenting twenty case studies that showcase (mostly) mature applications of robotics in various agricultural and forestry domains. The case studies are not meant to be comprehensive but instead to give the reader a general overview of how robotics has been applied to A&F in the last 10 years. The fourth section concludes the chapter with a discussion on specific improvements to current technology and paths to commercialization.

An autonomous cucumber harvester

Author  Elder J. van Henten, Jochen Hemming, Bart A.J. van Tuijl, J.G. Kornet, Jan Meuleman, Jan Bontsema, Erik A. van Os

Video ID : 308

The video demonstrates an autonomous cucumber harvester developed at Wageningen University and Research Centre, Wageningen, The Netherlands. The machine consists of a mobile platform which runs on rails, which are commonly used in greenhouses in The Netherlands for the purpose of internal transport, but they are also used as a hot- water heating system for the greenhouse. Harvesting requires functional steps such as the detection and localization of the fruit and assessment of its ripeness. In the case of the cucumber harvester, the different reflection properties in the near infrared spectrum are exploited to detect green cucumbers in the green environment. Whether the cucumber was ready for harvest was identified based on an estimation of its weight. Since cucumbers consist 95% of water, the weight estimation was achieved by estimating the volume of each fruit. Stereo-vision principles were then used to locate the fruits to be harvested in the 3-D environment. For that purpose, the camera was shifted 50 mm on a linear slide and two images of the same scene were taken and processed. A Mitsubishi RV-E2 manipulator was used to steer the gripper-cutter mechanism to the fruit and transport the harvested fruit back to a storage crate. Collision-free motion planning based on the A* algorithm was used to steer the manipulator during the harvesting operation. The cutter consisted of a parallel gripper that grabbed the peduncle of the fruit, i.e., the stem segment that connects the fruit to the main stem of the plant. Then the action of a suction cup immobilized the fruit in the gripper. A special thermal cutting device was used to separate the fruit from the plant. The high temperature of the cutting device also prevented the potential transport of viruses from one plant to the other during the harvesting process. For each successful cucumber harvested, this machine needed 65.2 s on average. The average success rate was 74.4%. It was found to be a great advantage that the system was able to perform several harvest attempts on a single cucumber from different harvest positions of the robot. This improved the success rate considerably. Since not all attempts were successful, a cycle time of 124 s per harvested cucumber was measured under practical circumstances.

An autonomous robot for de-leafing cucumber plants

Author  Elder J. van Henten, Bart A.J. van Tuijl, G. J. Hoogakker, M.J. van der Weerd, Jochen Hemming, J.G. Kornet, Jan Bontsema

Video ID : 309

In cucumber production, amongst other crops, removal of old non-productive leaves in the lower regions of the plant is a time consuming task. Based on the platform of the autonomous cucumber harvester at Wageningen University and Research Centre, Wageningen, The Netherlands, a robot for de-leafing cucumber plants was developed. The platform's camera system identifies and locates the main stems of the plants. The gripper is sent to the plant and moved upwards. Leaves encountered during this upward motion are separated from the plant using a thermal cutting device which prevents transmission of viruses from plant to plant. An interesting feature of this machine is that, with slight modifications of software and hardware, two greenhouse operations can be performed.

The Intelligent Autonomous Weeder

Author  Tijmen Bakker, Kees Van Asselt, Jan Bontsema, Joachim Müller, Gerrit van Straten

Video ID : 310

The Intelligent Autonomous Weeder is a four-wheel, steered, four-wheel-drive, autonomous platform which can be used for autonomous weeding operations in arable farming. An RTK DGPS system is used for navigation. The control architecture is based on a hybrid deliberative and behavior-based reactive approach.