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RObotics for MIcrofarms

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ROMI (RObotics for MIcrofarms)

Reporting period: 2018-11-01 to 2020-09-30

All over Europe, young farmers are starting small market farms and direct sales businesses. These farms can be found both in rural, peri-urban and urban areas. They grow a large variety of crops (up to 100 different varieties of vegetables per year) on small surfaces (0.01 to 5 ha) using organic farming practices. These farms have proven to be highly productive, sustainable and economically viable. However, a lot of work is done manually, resulting in physically challenging work conditions.
ROMI will develop an open and lightweight robotics platform for these microfarms, by proposing in a first time to the market a weeding robot, a farmer’s dashboard and a 3D scanner. With these tools, we will be able to assist these farms in weed reduction and crop monitoring. This will reduce manual labour and increase the productivity through advanced planning tools. For instance, thanks to ROMI’s weeding robot, farmers will save 25% of their time. This land robot will also acquire detailed information on sample plants and will be coupled with an aerial robot that acquires more global information at crop level : that will be our farmer’s dashboard application. Together, they will produce an integrated, multi-scale picture of the crop development that will help the farmer monitor the crops to increase efficient harvesting. For this, ROMI will have to adapt and extend state-of-the-art land-based and airborne monitoring tools to handle small fields with complex layouts and mixed crops.
To achieve this, we will: (i) develop and bring to the market an affordable, multi-purpose, land-based robot, (ii) develop a weeding app for this robot that is adapted for organic microfarms, (iii) apply advanced 3D plant analysis and modelling techniques to in-field data acquisition, (iv) integrate these analysis techniques in the robot for detailed plant monitoring, (iv) integrate these techniques also in an aerial robot for multi-scale crop monitoring, (v) extend the robot with novel, adaptive learning techniques to improve sensorimotor control of the plant monitoring app, (vi) propose an affordable 3D scanner for plant phenotyping and (viii) test the effectiveness of our solution in real-world field conditions.
ROMI choose to set mechanical weeding as a short-term priority because it is a time-consuming and physical task in organic farming. Indeed, a weeding application is often the first item on the wish list of organic farmers. Moreover, such a tool could convince more conventional farmers to transition to organic practices, providing an appealing and credible solution to accompany the necessary cut-off of herbicides. ROMI’s second short-term application is a static, indoor 3D plant scanner. The scanner is a stepping stone to develop the outdoor phenotyping application. We believe that the scanner is a useful object in itself that can be proposed to biology labs interested in precise and quantitative plant architecture phenotyping. We created an organisation so as to make known all our results and prepare exploitation steps.
The ROMI project makes a big deal of sustainability for Tomorrow’s agriculture. Organic microfarms are promising sustainable agricultural systems, but they still need to convince a majority of their ability to feed the world while providing good incomes to farmers. We believe that new and adapted technologies can help these systems to solve the conundrum of combining productivity, reduced environmental impacts and economical viability. Although agroecology claims that increasing the level of biodiversity and polyculture can increase productivity and resource-use efficiency with nutrition and environmental benefits, efficient management of such complexity may hinder the adoption of such practice. For instance, most of the modern agricultural mechanics has achieved tremendous yield increase through homogenization of agrosystems, allowing efficient automation of basic tasks. ROMI makes an opposite bet: matching the needs of more complex farming environment with a more complex computational environment. Our aim is to develop flexible, smarter, adaptive tools to manage complex and biodiverse environments. The increased complexity can be compensated for by using tools with advanced sensing and modeling capabilities, by increased collaboration between farmers and scientists and by creating farming communities gathered around innovations for a numeric agriculture. We hope that during the ROMI project, we will be able to develop a proof of concept of this approach.
Another important feature of ROMI is that all the tools (software and hardware) will be made openly available under a free license. We believe that this is the best approach to have a wide as possible impact. It facilitates the access to our results for the many small farms worldwide and facilitates the collaboration between farmers, scientists, engineers, and industry.
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