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Robots for protecting crops

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ROBS4CROPS (Robots for protecting crops)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2021-12-31

The most important challenge in European agriculture is the cost and scarcity of labour. Robots have replaced labour in several sectors of the economy. Agricultural robots have not yet reached widespread acceptance. The vision of ROBS4CROPS is an agricultural sector where robots will replace humans in all heavy and unpleasant work!

From a technical point of view, agricultural robots do not reach their potential because they are used as stand-alone units rather than as part of a complete, innovative robotic system. From a non-technical point of view, agricultural robots do not fit well with current farming practices and agricultural standards and are not supported by an ecosystem of stakeholders.

ROBS4CROPS will tackle technical challenges by creating a robotic farming solution that consists of three elements: smart implements, autonomous vehicles, and the farming controller. Existing agricultural implements and tractors will be upgraded so that they can function, together with existing agricultural robots, as parts of a robotic system. Development and testing will take place in real farming environments (real operating conditions), in four countries, in iterative cycles, and in close collaboration with stakeholders.

ROBS4CROPS will tackle non-technical challenges by using existing agricultural standards, by utilizing existing machinery (thus lowering the initial investment needed), and by addressing the lack of maintenance, insurance, financing and training. Compliance with regulations, robo-ethics and socio-economic impact will be explicitly addressed. Robotics offers an opportunity to develop novel business models. Building the ecosystem for agricultural robotics will take place iteratively, in parallel with technical development. The complete robotic system (technical and non-technical) will be demonstrated at scale in pilots in four European countries.
In WP1 (Ecosystems building) requirements for the robotics system were formulated, as well as KPIs and measurable metrics to asses conformance. In WP2 (Smart implements) a technical framework was designed and implemented for communication and control between smart implements and autonomous vehicles. In WP3 (Autonomous vehicles) two conventional tractors have been bought and these are currently in the process of being retrofitted for autonomous operation. Sensors for navigation and for mapping of the environment have been selected and navigation algorithms are being tested. In WP4 (Farming controller) a first version of digital twin of the farm and its robots has been developed. A framework for communication between the farming controller on the one hand and vehicles and implements on the other hand has been implemented. In WP5 (Tests) component tests and integrated system tests have been designed and conducted, for each of the robotic systems that will be used in a large scale pilots (LSP). In WP6 (Large-scale pilots), specific goals, technical guidelines and methodology, and logistics were defined for each LSP. LSP1 (France) and LSP4 (Netherlands) performed initial experimental work ahead of the proposal timeline. WP7 (Socio-economics and ethics) contributed to WP1 by defining KPIs and measurable metrics for socio-economic aspects. A survey and a series of interviews were held to assess social and environmental impact of autonomous systems. WP8 (Exploitation, communication, and dissemination) created the project website, conducted social media campaigns, and supported dissemination efforts by all partners. This WP held two internal workshops to assess IP opportunities and issues in the project as a first step in the development of a comprehensive IP strategy. WP9 (Management) maintained contact with the EC, coordinated the project, organized project meetings, and ensured timely delivery of all reports. After this first year, the project is in an excellent position to implement the planned field work during the 2022 growing season.
ROBS4CROPS will develop components and integrate them into a practical autonomous robotic system for crop protection.

Non-technical aspects:

Exploitation: The consortium will provide business models for launching ROBS4CROPS solutions along with existing infrastructure and technology that farmers already own. Robots-as-a-Service business models will be examined to identify novel ways for accelerating adoption of robotic technologies.

Ecosystem building: An innovation ecosystem is “the set of actors, activities, and artefacts, and the institutions and relations, that are important for the innovative performance of an actor or a population of actors. This project will make full use of the existing Digital Innovation Hub projects and reach out to a wide group of ecosystem actors and elicit from them their requirements and concerns.

Ethics issues: We will apply ethical theory to review the specific applications of agricultural robotics and situate the questions about smart farming within the wider ethical debate about increased deployment of AI and robotic systems to perform tasks traditionally undertaken by humans.

Socio-economic costs and benefits: ROBS4CROPS will assess costs and environmental net-benefits and present the results in a web-tool that enables key stakeholders to assess the economic impact of varied implementation levels. For each scenario, externalities, non-market cost and benefits from robotic systems in comparison with conventional systems will be assessed.

Large scale pilots: A realistic test ground will be established in each pilot country to compare conventional farm operations with the newly introduced ROBS4CROPS solution. The large-scale pilots of ROBS4CROPS will connect with many farmers and other stakeholders. .

Technical aspects:

The robotic farming solution consists of three components: smart implements, autonomous vehicles, and the farming controller

Smart implements: ROBS4CROPS will equip agricultural implements with novel sensor systems and will develop methodologies to assess the performed operations. The project will use ISOBUS (ISO 11783) for communication between vehicles and implements. The Task Controller function of ISOBUS will ensure that a prescription map intended for a conventional tractor can also be applied by a robot.

Autonomous vehicles: ROBS4CROBS will implement full autonomous behaviour for autonomous agricultural vehicles. This will be achieved by sensors, models and software that are implemented on the robot itself. Full autonomy also includes task-level autonomy, which includes (re)scheduling of tasks in response to goals and conditions, such as backing out of a crop row which turns out to be blocked by an obstacle, then continue work in the next row; or “remove weeds from this field before this evening”. This will be achieved by planning and scheduling algorithms which will make use of a Digital Twin of each vehicle.

Farming controller: ROBS4CROPS will offer a fully autonomous robotic system for crop protection by transferring state-of-the-art controlling and synchronisation systems deriving from industrial manufacturing to the agricultural sector. The Farming Controller will be designed and implemented for establishing seamless communication of all resources and sensors with a digital representation of the field, under a common framework. The implemented model will host simulation tools as well as an upper layer controlling module