ISPA Account

Some Thoughts Around Robotics and Automation

by Ian Yule
I have been to two conferences recently where ideas around robotics and automation have been discussed and very different solutions offered. Ideas around robotics and automation are continuing and there are a number of schools of thought as to how agriculture will respond. Will we go for smaller robots and robot swarms to complete tasks or will we see our major ag companies produce driverless versions of their present equipment. While attending the Agricultural Engineering 2017 conference just before the Agritechnica exhibition held in Hannover in November 2017 I was reminder about some of the fundamentals of the interactions of machines with soil. In particular the need to develop traction efficiently without damaging the soil. Prof Carl Renius of the Technica University of Munich, gave an excellent presentation on the 75 conferences on, Agricultural Engineering in Germany and Europe. I was particularly struck by a slide showing the work of Sohne, illustrating the fundamentals of soil stress under tires which dated back to 1951. This must be something that every agricultural engineer and soil scientist has been exposed to during their education.

On various occasions I have been reminded that domain expertise is very important. I know members of the society are from a number of discipline areas and I would like to encourage you to pursue those disciplines because it can add to having better informed debate surrounding the interactions we require to progress precision agriculture. A recent example springs to mind.

The problem around robotics, size capacity etc. What fits the current business model? At the PA17 conference Simon Blackmore presented his ideas around smaller robots to do a number of field tasks.  At Agricultural Engineering 2017 I listened to Chris Forster from CNH Industrial talk about their vision for the future, very different and I am sure most of you will have seen that vision over the last couple of years in the press. Essentially adapting existing plant to develop driverless tractors.
CaseIH Autonomous Tractor

But what a great subject to have an ideas hackathon. I would have thought that all the information is there to look at the relationships between, timeliness, operational capacity, vehicle weight, cost of machine operation, cost of soil damage and compaction (based on the work initiated by Sohne 1951), soil moisture conditions, soil workability, etc etc, all are available to us to sit down and work out what would be optimum. For those in education what a great way to teach a number of concepts to your students to come up with an optimised design concept. But wait, it is all situation or site specific, well get a network of people working all those different aspects to create a greater depth of experience for those taking part. Then perhaps create viable designs for the future. Hopefully we could create an experience which was a position active design activity rather than being a collection of topics for students to learn.
Melissa Clarke-Reynolds gave a thought provoking after-dinner talk at the PA17 conference and made some interesting points around business. She suggested it was not technology that was the disruption but the business model that was no longer appropriate and was therefore disrupted. Again a great subject for some active design thinking. What would the business of robotic farming look like? How should we be marketing our food products. Clearly not something one person can answer but further emphasises the point that we need to actively engage with many domain experts in order to come up with a system solutions. It would be great if we could come up with ways to more actively engage with the younger generation of engineer, designer, agronomist, entrepreneur to help create some solutions for the future.