Robotics in farming and agriculture are allowing European farmers to work in a safer environment, increasing yield and helping to develop more sustainable farming, in asparagus farming and other sectors. The UN predicts that the world population will rise from 7.3 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050 – putting more pressure on farmers to develop new strategies throughout an industry where supply is struggling to meet demand. Europe is beginning to notice the benefits of smart farming when it comes to closing the supply chain gap.
Robots are part of an overall push for greater precision and sustainability within farming. Smart farming has evolved using data-based technology such as satellite positioning systems, remote sensing, and the internet. The main uses for robots and Information Communication Technology (ICT) in farming include:
- Harvesting and picking;
- Weed control;
- Autonomous mowing, pruning, seeding, spraying and thinning, and;
- Sorting and packing.
Robots are more commonly used for harvesting and picking as it allows for greater speed and accuracy. Within the asparagus farming industry, researchers are increasingly creating and developing new machinery to eventually lower the cost of asparagus to consumers, increase yield, and hopefully bring more young farmers back into to the industry.
Farming is a notoriously hard, dirty job and young people are being put off by the thought of consecutive 12-hour days and intense manual labour. It has been speculated that the new high-tech nature of farming could attract younger people back into the industry.
Robots used in asparagus farming
When it comes to asparagus, farmers are taking smart farming and robotics very seriously and are considering options that will make it more sustainable. Naturally, asparagus farming can be a very time-consuming job, with workers having to manually cut the asparagus out of the ground, at exactly the right times. Robotics are now being developed to do this element of the process in replacement of manual labour.
Asparagus farms have high start-up costs, as it can usually take two to three years for the crop to initially grow. However, after the first cut, asparagus will shoot up every spring for up to 25 years. Asparagus needs to be picked once it reaches a certain height, usually around eight inches, meaning this process favours manual labour – where the farmer can observe and leave the smaller, younger stalks. The crop releases an enzyme once it has matured, which spurs the production of further stalks to grow. Therefore, if they are cut too early, they will not produce the enzyme and the plant will die. Once the asparagus starts to have foliage, they are too tough for eating, making timing extremely important.
The process of picking asparagus originally seemed too complex for machinery. However, through the EU-funded, ECHORD++ project, technology in asparagus farming is starting to progress and the project has released trials on a robotic system for selective green asparagus farming. The harvesting machine is built with a camera, viewing the asparagus, and two harvesting tools, which work like scissors. The aim of the machine is to increase harvesting productivity by vision-driven multi-tool harvesting mechanisms. The camera is able to reliably and robustly recognise how tall the stalks are in order to distinguish between harvesting ready asparagus, and leaving ones which are not. This is achieved by using a colour image as well as a depth image, with the images being combined by a vision module into a point cloud which gives the machine information about stalk positions, including that of the size of each individual stalk.