Wageningen research into smart agricultural and horticultural robots will receive 12 to 17 million euros from the NXTGEN HIGHTECH program. The contribution from the National Growth Fund of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate is intended to give a major boost to agri-food technology.
The Netherlands is the third largest exporter of machines in argi and food technology in the world, and Dutch companies and knowledge institutions want to continue to play a leading role in this field. To this end, NXTGEN HIGHTECH was created. In total more than 1 billion euros has been distributed within the high-tech sector, of which almost 200 million for hands-free agri-food. Robot technology for agriculture and horticulture is one of the six application areas within the fund, in addition to clean energy, laser communication, drug development, faster chips and light materials.
The contribution from the fund should make it possible to grow crops as autonomously as possible. “Agriculture still requires a lot of manual work and labour is becoming scarcer. That is one reason to further develop robotics in agriculture and horticulture," says Erik Pekkeriet, program manager of Agro Food Robotics research at WUR.
Less costs, more nature
“On the other hand, you would like to encourage sustainability. To do so, we need tools with sensors that collect data and support decision-making. That way, farmers can make much better choices and use chemicals, water, fertilizer and energy more economically. And it will also become easier to make decisions that ensure more biodiversity. At the same time, it allows you to better manage the quality of your product.” WUR will work on this together with dozens of (business) partners.
Applications include open cultivation, from growth to harvest, and processing. Sensors in the field will monitor growth, providing an extra eye for farmers. Cameras on windmills, for example, help to monitor nutrient deficiencies or excess water. For the harvest, there will be much improved harvesting robots. Pekkeriet: “Consider harvesting crops in strip cultivation. Harvesters are not yet able to properly handle those crops, so that strip cultivation involves a lot of extra work.” With new machines, this will be a thing of the past, he hopes.
Working together in the farmyard
Robotisation continues on the farm. To avoid collisions, robots must be able to 'communicate' with tractors in the yard. “One question is how you can make it brand-independent,” says Pekkeriet. “Simultaneously, there is room to improve safety in a yard with such robots, so that children can safely play outside at the same time.” In addition to open cultivation, there are applications in greenhouse horticulture and the food industry.
Making farmers’ lives easier
The projects that are about to start will build on existing systems. These have already been tested in a relevant environment in agriculture or in the food industry, but the business-economic validation still needs to be improved. “A lot is already possible”, according to Pekkeriet, “but the individual systems do not yet communicate well with each other and they are not user-friendly. That causes concerns for the farmer, whereas technology should be there to make their life easier.” That is why Pekkeriet aims to simplify the virtual environment for farmers: he wants to “bring the field to the farmer”, so to speak.
Does that mean the farmer will no longer have to leave the door? “On the contrary, the farmer will have more time to monitor the fields instead of driving a tractor. I think this will allow them to see and do other things. Sustainability will become much more important,” he expects.
Testing in practice
To achieve the goals, WUR is focusing on technical development and extensive testing and integration on a farm scale. Farms, greenhouses, and factories of the future are emerging throughout the country, with each area of application being given its own location. Most of the new systems from the project should be ready for use by 2029.