When farming almonds, nuts are traditionally harvested by shaking a tree and collecting the nuts that fall. The problem is that this often leaves seeds still left among the branches.

To remove the almonds left on the tree, someone either has to get them with a long rod or give the tree another good shake. While a few nuts left on a tree may not seem like a big deal, it can potentially have severe consequences for crop yields.

“A pest called navel orangeworm will hibernate inside of this mummy during the wintertime and then in the spring it will emerge into a moth and it will damage the quality and yield of next year’s crop,” Anna Haldewang, CEO and founder of robotics startup InsightTRAC, recently told TV programme Inside INdiana Business.

To face this challenge, Haldewang has developed an autonomous robot designed to drive around farms and hunt the so-called mummy nuts left behind.

To do this, the robot drives around the trees, using a vision system to spot leftover nuts and shoot them off the tree with a ball bearing, freeing up farmers for more important jobs, improving crop yields and, importantly, doing it without using any pesticides in the process.

As an added bonus, the pellets shot at the husks are bio-degradable and so can just be left on the ground once fired.

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The system is not just a high-tech almond shooter. The robot also uses its inbuilt GPS to create a picture of what areas of an orchard have the most mummies allowing farmers to target countermeasures and again improve their crop yields further.

The system itself is designed to be equal to or lower in cost per acre of orchard than the traditional approach of shaking the tree or trying to spot and knock each mummy out of a tree with a long rod.

From almond orchards to upland farms

The base of InsightTRAC’s robot is built on the X2 uncrewed ground vehicle, built by the British company Digital Concepts Engineering. The vehicle started life as an agricultural system and has recently been used in projects across defence and nuclear decommissioning.

Digital Concepts Engineering’s director Lionel Nierop tells Verdict that the work on the almond hunting vehicle felt like the company had come “full-circle” in its work. He’s excited about the robots removing the need for blanket farming practices like the mass use of pesticides which can harm wild plants and damage the water table.

“There is increasing interest in sustainable agriculture and allowing us to effectively go back to how agriculture was done historically but using machines to enable that,” Nierop says. “That means much more tending specific plants, intervention on a plant-by-plant basis rather than a blanket approach of ‘well, we’ve got pests in that corner of the field so we just go and spray the whole lot.’”

Nierop is particularly excited about how the system can ensure that plants are harvested at exactly right time. For lettuce farmers, who have to time their harvesting to the exact right point, the system could not just boost productivity, but also ensure that they can afford to not keep the plants under constant surveillance. The robot does that work for them, so the farmers could, for instance, go and enjoy a barbecue. “This is really showing how robotics can enable precision agriculture,” Nierop says.

The company’s work in this space started when Innovate UK agritech funding in 2015 motivated their development of a robot designed to improve upland farms’ productivity. These types of farms are based in terrain making it hard to control weeds, nettles and thistles. The preferred method of dealing with these pests in upland farms is to use herbicides. However, these can be expensive for farmers, pollute watercourses and affect other wild plants.

The company’s solution was an autonomous system capable of navigating the often wet, hilly terrain, and applying a specific measured dose of pesticide to a problem plant, empowering a return to more precision farming. To remove the use of pesticides completely, a robot could simply run over the plant a number of times with its tracks or burn it away.

“If you’re starting to use systems that run themselves around and they are able to run 24 hours a day then it doesn’t necessarily need to be the quick and dirty way of doing it,” says Nierop.

“Herbicide is favoured because you spray it on and forget about it, but actually you can go back to what people were doing before and you burn the leaves or you can electrocute the weed as people have been looking at doing, or you can stamp on it and keep whacking it until it disappears.”

Nierop adds that to further the adoption of using robots instead of blanket techniques, farmers “need confidence” that the prospective robotic solutions are reliable and won’t break down – removing that barrier of adoption.

The company also makes the Marionette system. Nierop suggests that the Marionette system could help farmers upgrade vehicles like combine harvesters or tractors without having to purchase new equipment, as the system can be retrofitted onto existing tractors to give them new capabilities.

The ability for robots to access rugged terrain has potential benefits for other farming sectors, including vineyards that also suffer from pests and are built into steep hillsides. Traditionally the work of hauling crates of grapes up a hillside is done by hand or using power barrows. However, robots could do this job autonomously, freeing up winemakers to focus on the harvest.

Like many areas of the farming sector, robots can allow humans to focus on the more essential tasks, which benefits crop yield and negates some of the need for harmful chemical practices.

Autonomous electrocution and wider research

Digital Concept’s Engineering is not alone in using robotics to innovate in the agriculture space. In late 2019, RootWave partnered with the Small Robot Company to apply RootWave weed electrocuting technology to a robot named Dick. Designed as a world-first ‘non-chemical precision robotic weeding’ for cereal crops, Dick is designed to enable automated weeding at scale without the need for chemicals. Like Digital Concepts Engineering’s robot, the development of Dick received funding from Innovate UK.

Field trials are underway with a view to a commercial service being available from Autumn of 2021.

The robot system is envisaged as being able to identify individual weeds and electrocuting them. The natural resistance of the weed then causes it to boil from the inside out, killing it completely. After which, the weed decomposes, returning nutrients to the soil. Using the system thus removes the need to spray large areas of farmland with chemical herbicides. Currently, the system is in use as a handheld device with customers including the National Trust and Environment Agency.

More innovation in this space may be coming. Earlier in 2021, the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced an R&D funding collaboration worth £12m aimed at developing farm-focused initiatives. The Farming Innovation Pathways is designed to ensure the “practical translation” of research into agriculture.

UKRI and Defra said the Farming Innovation Pathways funding would be “open to ideas” addressing a number of challenges across agri-food adding that priorities for research would include robotics and automation – making an explicit mention of vision-guided robotic weeding systems.

Commenting on the funding, Defra minister for farming, fisheries and food Victoria Prentis said: “The Farming Innovation Pathways competition offers farmers and growers the opportunity to see their bold and innovative ideas become reality, and to drive forward green growth in the sector.

“We want to see farmers manage their businesses in a way that delivers profitable food production and the recovery of nature, using the best modern technology available today.

“Promising innovations such as robotics and automation, and novel food production systems have the potential to transform business performance for our farmers and help them address some of the industry’s greatest challenges.”

So shooting almonds and burning weeds could be just the beginning for robot-backed farming.