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Special session at the Académie d’Agriculture de France _ Farming Robots (25 January 2017)

25.1. 2017

Chaired by Dr René AUTELET (E-mail: rene.autellet@wanadoo.fr )

The aim of this seminar is to enlighten existing solutions and their most predictable evolutions. We limited the scope of the presentations proposed to crops, fruits and vegetables. But we intend to propose a dedicated seminar to robots devoted to cattle productions within the next months.

The first presentation was about recent history: “What about the first robots developed in the years 80?”. Gilbert Grenier, professor of automatics at Bordeaux Ag University, presented the short history of farming robots, with at first e.g. the ploughing “Robot labour” that was fully operational 30 years ago. Developed by Jean Lucas, research director at Cemagref, and was a living lab that epitomised the concept of “group of robots” or “herd of robots”: an army of small machines developed to replace big and heavy machineries. Six labour robots with a plough 2 coulters should replace an over powerful tractor with a plough 12 coulters. These small and light robots should have the advantage to be less expensive, more secured, with less soil compaction, more flexible  e.g. to go back at the end of the field and perform a fast U-turn.

Thus the idea was to protect the environment and landscape since e.g. small low cost robots should not make necessary to enlarge rural roads. Another idea was to enable new small industrial enterprises to enter a new market place where they will compete with well-known world companies.

Other robots quite famous in France in the eighties were “Magali” to harvest apple trees, “Citrus” to harvest oranges, another robot to manipulate heavy loads in the green houses. But to tell the truth, public authorities were more interested in farming robots that the farmers since the above mentioned robots did not really meet their actual needs.

Technical difficulties were enormous: lack of efficient localisation and positioning tools, inefficient vision and radar tools, low information processing capabilities. A realistic vison of users’ needs was missing too: in particular the balance between works performed by operators and robots must be studied precisely.

It is noticeable that Ms Audrey Guillet who was awarded by the French Agricultural Academy with its silver medal for its thesis who dealt driving a group of tractors, is now working with Agco.

It is also of notice to observe the awards of the next SIMA 2017 (Paris agricultural machinery show): two silver medals were attributed to very powerful autonomous tractors.

Within the second part of the seminar, robots produced and marketed by different start-ups were presented:

– Naïo Technologies (20 people, 70 clients, 1M€ turnover in 2017) : Mowing robots for open air or green house vegetable productions, or vineyards.

– Effidence: transport robots to help field (and to follow) operators to avoid painful operations (intelligent autonomous automotive barrow).

– Vitirover: small size autonomous robots to cut and control weeds in the vineyards with solar panels to produce its electricity, working in groups, the computer facilities being located in the cloud.

– Agco: second World Tractor Manufacturer: To cope with the enlargement of farms, an unavailable manpower, efforts are made to better prepare field works but what about the robots and the real expectations of farmers who wish to remain active? On the other hand the security / results’ quality challenges are not completely met.

The manufacturer cannot forget that the tractors have to use public road where they cannot circulate without driver.

In the third part of the seminar, Michel BERDUCA, searcher at ’IRSTEA, presented the main research axes, and challenges to address. A classification in three levels of complexity proved to be useful. The most complex and ambitious robots did not meet success when less complex robots seem to be welcomed by the producers.

It is important to remember that the robots do start to work in the farm itself before going to the fields, the tractor requiring complementary tools to really work. Eventually, the activities of national RobAgri platform were presented.

Frédéric COLLEDANI searcher at CEA, described some interesting evolutions of industrial robotics and possible applications in Agriculture. Collaborative robots (robots) were presented and the use of exosquelet was considered to help ag workers to perform painful tasks.

Jean-François COLOMER, former president of our Academy, will draw conclusions in the context of the numerisation / computerisation of Agriculture.

Guy Waksman
AAF – Section IX

Contact person ; rene.autellet@wanadoo.fr