Robots can perform many functions in agriculture, from monitoring crops and livestock, to applying fertilizer and pesticide, to harvesting fruits and vegetables. While most farm automation involves wheeled vehicles or aerial drones, HayBeeSee Ltd. has taken a different approach with its CropHopper robot.
CropHopper is designed to jump across fields and monitor crops, identify weeds and insects, and watch for signs of disease. It can also conduct mechanical weeding and spot spraying, said the London-based company. CropHopper can provide better information for farmer decision making than periodic aircraft surveys or slower ground-based robots, claimed HayBeeSee.
Understanding agricultural needs
“I studied aerospace engineering and was looking for the next big thing in 2013,” recalled Fred Miller, founder and CEO of HayBeeSee. “Both led to agriculture and robotics, and in 2015, we looked at quadcopters in agriculture.”
“People didn’t understand early on what problems in agriculture to solve,” Miller told The Robot Report. “When you talk to agronomists, they view farming as a system. You could use a waterfall chart to show the contribution of things like cultivation, the choice of crop-rotation strategy, and different applications of herbicides. A lot comes down to timing.”
“The problem is that robotics startups were going with a stand-alone model, but it’s not like washing a car. You have to stay on it,” he said. “If you only go out once in a while, you have to waste a lot of time mapping, and with no data to start, you don’t know how effective a spray is. Farmers need something that visits the field very frequently, not simply technology to make one or two scans at the end of the season.”
“A tractor can’t scan every few days, a UAV can’t scan close to the ground, and a satellite can’t provide enough data for decisions,” said Miller. “At 14 kph [8.6 mph], a tractor for spraying or harvesting moves too quickly to detect weeds. CropHopper is more than a remote-control airplane or pre-existing vehicle base for cameras.”
CropHopper designed for daily monitoring
HayBeeSee said its lightweight robot is designed to quickly and efficiently leap as part of an integrated, full-season management strategy approved by the NIAB (National Institute of Agricultural Botany).
To extend drone flight times, Miller’s team considered using solar cells, but that was not practical, he said. CropHopper needs to recharge every three hours, and it can cover 12 hectares (29.6 acres) per hour. The goal is for it to cover 70 hectares (172.9 acres) per day.
“I already knew from aerospace that it’s hard to optimize for lift and weight, so a jumping mechanism is more efficient,” said Miller. “We hired a Ph.D. student who was a jumping robotics expert. We then put flex legs on a quadcopter.”
“Depending on where you are in the world, the average field is 15 hectares [37 acres],” he said. “CropHopper currently works best in smaller fields, but since it is designed to run for three years without replacing parts, you could have a different strategy with multiple robots for larger fields.”
“When we thought about vehicle missions, we started out thinking about the field as a rectangle, but we soon realized that farmers just need representative samples,” Miller explained. “CropHopper can accelerate from point to point faster than a wheeled robot. Also, it weighs only 3.5 kg, or 7 lb., and can move across terrain and over obstacles more like four-legged robots for the military, which provides some flexibility and doesn’t compact soil.”
“At the beginning of 2018, we built a device that could jump, control itself, and land,” added Thomasz Wierzchowski, chief technology officer at HayBeeSee. “We’ve been polishing it up with computer vision and conducting trials.”
More data could yield better farm returns
Last year, CropHopper mapped 30 hectares (74 acres) of fields for an estimated 60% in chemical savings. HayBeeSee is currently working on making its robot more rugged, sealing it for dust, and testing different foot designs.
While CropHopper’s current height of 70 cm (27.5 in.) is suitable for wheat and barley, foot extensions could make it useful for taller crops such as soybeans and corn, Wierzchowski said. Most legged robots have been designed for more open terrain, he noted.
“We initially focused on weed killing, because CropHopper can cover a lot of land and fly between patches of weeds and crops, but it has gotten much bigger than that,” Miller said. “Agronomists like that it can work all season long, and no other robots can go to the field every day and do the job of killing bugs or applying fertilizer.”
“Image quality, accounting for the robot’s motion, and understanding what you want to measure and at what height are more things that people need to understand,” he said. “There has been a bottleneck of data and technology.”
CropHopper sends data to a Web-based portal where farmers can plan modifications. HayBeeSee said it could help increase yields by 10% to 30% and triple profits.
In addition, the company said its hopping robot can reduce environmental impacts by cutting carbon emissions and improve sustainability with a lower impact on soils.
HayBeeSee said that all of its test farms, plus an additional 20 more, have requested the product when it is ready.
Agbotics ready for growth
HayBeeSee has received angel funding from ESA Business Incubation Centre UK, Innovate UK, the London Co-Investment Fund, and Newable. The company is looking for seed funding.
“In agriculture, there has been some resistance to investing in innovation, but European policies are now driving change,” Miller said. “There is now a lot of interest in farm management platforms, but there’s still a need for new hardware. We need to go from Ph.D. specialists to the wider knowledge base of industry and engineers.”
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