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Organic farmers reap multiple benefits from a solar-powered planting and weeding robot

The world’s first sustainable robot that can plant, weed and hoe has joined the farm machinery and workforce of organic farmer Eberhard Weisskopf. Eberhard is a pioneering farmer in Europe’s agricultural sector who uses robotics to make organic farming a more profitable and greener business.

The COVID-19 lockdown prompted German organic farmer, Eberhard Weisskopf, to implement his automation plans earlier than he had expected because it threatened his farm’s otherwise most lucrative and popular crop: sugar beets. The timing was critical: if he had not found a solution for weeding his sugar beets within two or three weeks, they would have had to abandon raising sugar beets in 2020.

The solution was to invest in two FD20 robots from Danish company FarmDroid. Each robot is designed to weed and hoe 20 hectares per season. They do this by constantly hoeing for eight weeks until the beet plants have grown big enough to dominate the field themselves. During this period, the robots manage to run through the fields five times because they operate almost round the clock – weeding thoroughly and slowly at less than one kilometre an hour.

The repayment period is reasonable and Eberhard Weisskopf believes that the investment in the FarmDroid robots will pay for itself in two years.

Optimising yields and reducing human error

When rows in a beet field are hoed manually, experience shows that 20–30% of the beet sprouts are removed because it is hard for the human eye to discern between weed and crop. This wastes about 20,000 beet sprouts per hectare.  Thanks to his FD20 robots, this waste is now eliminated.

By contrast with other solutions on the market, the FD20 does not depend on camera technology to distinguish between weeds and beet plants; instead, the robots know exactly where the beet seeds are because they planted them. The robots navigate using high-precision GPS technology and operate at just the right (slow) speed. This enables them to plant the beet seeds with such precision that they can subsequently weed plants and rows just as precisely. This way, the robots adroitly hoe around beet plants, even when the beets are only seedlings.

The robots hoe weeds within the rows, meaning between the individual plants, but they also do inter-row cultivation using a wire. This pares off weed sprouts 1 to 3 centimetres into the soil between the rows. The robot weighs substantially less than a tractor and equipment, i.e. less than 800 kilos, which keeps the soil’s micro-structures intact and eliminates tractor fumes.

Several other crops will be automated

The lessons learnt in the first year of automatic weed control in the beet fields are so satisfying that Eberhard Weisskopf is now considering whether to deploy the robot fleet in his rapeseed and onion fields as well, as they need to be weeded in early spring. Beetroots are another possibility, as are other crops that require inter-row and inter-plant weeding to get reasonable yields.

As an organic farmer, Eberhard Weisskopf is concerned about ensuring sustainable farming operations. This is why an obvious benefit of FarmDroid is that its robots are solar-powered. In relatively clear weather, the four photovoltaic panels, comprising the robot’s ‘roof’, can generate up to 20 kWh a day.

Source: Verdens Bedste Fødevarer (In Danish)