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Robot Farmers
March 27, 2014   
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Polish scientists are working to make agriculture more innovative. Owners of orchards, vineyards, greenhouses and large farms will soon be able to carry out field work without being physically present there.

Multifunction robots and systems will take care of spraying, fertilizing, protecting plants from spring frost and summer heat, as well as minimizing the use of chemicals. Prototypes of such machines have already been developed, and the designers have landed awards at international invention exhibitions.

The Agrirobo company, based in the Wrocław Technology Park in southwestern Poland, has developed an agricultural robot called Agribot, together with researchers from the Wrocław University of Technology and the University of Life Sciences in Wrocław. The robot makes it possible to introduce automation in farming. Agribot moves on tracks between rows of crops and uses interchangeable tools. It sprays plants, cuts stems and branches, fertilizes the soil, and mows the grass.

The Agribot is equipped with sensors to detect obstacles and a precise location system using GPS with an accuracy of one centimeter. The vehicle can move on its own between rows of plants and perform two operations in one pass, such as spraying and mowing. In addition, a high-precision fertilizer spreader, a system for continuous soil testing and automatic cutters can be mounted on the robot.

Spraying crops without a human operator at any time of day or night enables the farmer to save a lot of time. Thanks to a spray recovery system, there are also financial savings.

The Agribot can perform a U-turn on a narrow path, which allows the farmer to plant more shrubs or trees in a specific orchard area. This directly translates into higher yields and profits. The robot is also environmentally friendly and safe for the user. Since the robot does not require direct on-site supervision, the human operator is not exposed to the harmful effects of chemicals.

The Agrirobo company’s research and development department is working to equip the robot with a system for collecting fruit such as apples. Together with the Wrocław University of Life Sciences, research is being conducted on the possibilities of using non-chemical methods of weed control, such as solar and thermal methods. The technology would make it possible to significantly reduce the use of pesticides.

The Agribot was developed with financial support available as part of the Akcelerator EIT+ project. The first international presentation of the Agribot’s capabilities took place during the Agritechnica agriculture trade fair in Hanover, Germany. In addition to potential buyers, the robot impressed European Commission and U.S. administration officials. Agrirobo says it is the only Polish company that has been invited to join the EuRobotics association based in Brussels.

The Agribot has been designed by a team made up of Łukasz Konarski, Adam Lichwa and Łukasz Rybarkiewicz from Agrirobo, three researchers from the Wrocław University of Technology—Prof. Piotr Dudziński, Adam Konieczny and Robert Czabanowski—and Prof. Jerzy Bieniek and Grzegorz Kulczycki, Ph.D., from the Wrocław University of Life Sciences.

“Work on the prototype began in June 2012. After a year, field trials were carried out. We are working on new equipment and accessories. Having built a prototype, we are now looking for an investor to take an interest in the project,” says Rybarkiewicz.

In another project benefiting agriculture, a team of researchers led by Prof. Sławomir Kurpaska from the University of Agriculture in Cracow has developed an innovative heat accumulator that makes it possible to produce healthier vegetables thanks to reduced use of pesticides. The invention also helps reduce energy wastage in greenhouses. The scientists received a silver medal at the Brussels Innova exhibition for coming up with the concept for the device and for developing the method for using it in plastic production tunnels.

Modern greenhouses and plastic tunnels are equipped with technology enabling rational energy management. These facilities, however, must be aired so that the temperature inside them does not rise excessively. In the process, a significant part of the heat produced inside them is wasted. Fees for energy in such production facilities reach up to 60 percent of all operating costs.

The heat accumulator singled out for praise in Brussels is mounted under a gardening tunnel. It consists of a bed split into several sections and filled with aggregate. It can work in modes such as heat storage, plant reheating, and plant cooling on hot summer days.

Kurpaska was the scientific coordinator of the project, which also involved Hubert Latała, Ph.D., from the University of Agriculture in Cracow, and Prof. Ryszard Hołownicki and Paweł Konopacki, from the Research Institute of Pomology and Floriculture in the central city of Skierniewice.

The scientists tested their invention while growing tomatoes. With the accumulator, it was possible to raise the temperature inside the tunnel by about 6 degrees Celsius and reduce the relative humidity of air by about 19 percent. Thanks to this, the microclimate improved and the plants were healthy despite the use of pesticides being cut by 40 percent. The researchers found that cooling the plants on hot summer days also improved the quality of the fruit.

The invention has received silver medals at exhibitions in Nuremberg, Germany, and Brussels, Belgium.

Karolina Olszewska
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