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Swarms of robots are being deployed on the fields – What does it take to expand the use of them?

21 November 2023

Swarms of robots are being deployed on the fields – What does it take to expand the use of them?

Danish farmers are ready to embrace new technologies to support the green transition and ensure smarter production. Multi-robot systems are a crucial part of the solution, but barriers need to be dismantled and teething problems eliminated for seamless interaction between farmers and robots.

Self-driving robots are replacing diesel-powered giant machines, and multi-robot systems enable several robots to collaborate in the fields. Precision spraying of fertilizers and pesticides reduces the use of spray chemicals.

There are both environmental and efficiency gains in entrusting fieldwork to robots, and technology plays a vital role in the agricultural green transition.

“One of the major problems in agriculture is that farm machinery is getting larger and larger. However, when large machines traverse the ground, they compact the soil, requiring a significant amount of energy to repair the damage they cause. If instead, we deploy smaller, autonomous robots, we can increase efficiency without causing damage to the environment.”

– Anders Lyhne Christensen, Professor, University of Southern Denmark, UAS Center

The development imposes new requirements on both technology and users. In the HERD project, funded by DIREC – Digital Research Centre Denmark, Aalborg University’s expertise in designing user interfaces, University of Southern Denmark’s (SDU) knowledge of robotics, and Copenhagen Business School’s (CBS) insights into market creation and business models are combined with use cases from various companies developing robot systems.

AGROINTELLI, a Danish scaleup, is one such company working to break down barriers preventing farmers from adopting new technologies. Alea Scovill, R&D Manager at AGROINTELLI, emphasizes the importance of addressing factors like price, robustness, and user-friendliness to facilitate wider robot adoption.

“At AGROINTELLI, efforts are being directed towards breaking down some of the barriers currently preventing several farmers from adopting new technologies – a challenge encountered by the majority of field robot companies in the EU, says R&D Manager Alea Scovill from AGROINTELLI.

“If farmers cannot see how the robot fits into the farm and can be used without significant instruction, sales are lost. Price, robustness, and user-friendliness are other parameters influencing the adoption and serving as barriers for more farmers to embrace the robots,” explains Alea Scovill, who is in close dialogue with the involved researchers from CBS.

The role of CBS researchers in the project is precisely to explore the market challenges and commercial opportunities in the technology, and what it takes to mature the market. PhD student Alexandra Hettich, for instance, has interviewed various stakeholders such as sales personnel and dealers, and will soon interview the farmers. 

“Agriculture is particularly interesting as a domain. With the introduction of robots, the farmer’s work is significantly altered, and the obstacles to a successful implementation of this groundbreaking technology vary in nature. Therefore, we need to analyze the diversity of obstacles before developing concrete solutions to overcome them,” says Alexandra Hettich, PhD student at CBS.”

The collaboration uncovers various aspects of the technology

According to Professor Anders Lyhne Christensen from the University of Southern Denmark, the project leader for the project, the results are particularly interesting because they cover all aspects of technology, focusing on both the technological challenges, user experience, and the commercial aspects of agricultural robots as a business area.

“At SDU, we work with multi-robot systems and focus on how to make robots do what they need to do and provide the user with the information they need. Aalborg University works on user interfaces and user interfaces, such as how users can keep track of what robots have done, what they are currently doing, and what they will do in the future. In other words, how to give the user the right buttons to turn. Finally, CBS focuses on the business part for companies developing these robots and what business models may be promising for them. How can they access the market, and what happens at the other end with the organizations that need to use multi-robot systems, how do they change?” explains Anders Lyhne Christensen.

The focus is largely on users’ understanding and use of the technology, he elaborates.

“We can certainly create robots and program them to do this and that, but getting them to work in the real world requires that people can control them. What we are working on is therefore the interaction between the AI in the robots, the people who have to control the robots, and the organizations around them.”

“It doesn’t work if the farmer has to keep an eye on the robot while it performs the task – not much is gained then. Instead, it is important to be able to oversee what several robots are doing at once.”

It may also be that the farmer himself does not have to monitor the robots, but a company that monitors robots for 50 farmers at a time, and then it changes those organizations because new job functions and responsibilities come with the technology.”

Alea Scovill is pleased with the collaboration with the researchers. It works well, says the R&D manager.

“The flow of information between the partners in the project has been relatively smooth. At AGROINTELLI, we have primarily worked with CBS and Aalborg University because their research areas fit well with our situation. CBS is investigating the market obstacles for ROBOTTI. And at Aalborg University, the researchers have developed a new proposal for a user interface for remote monitoring of multiple robots, and they will soon interview an agricultural school about the experience of the new user interface,” says Alea Scovill.

 

ABOUT THE HERD PROJECT

In the HERD project, researchers, along with industrial partners, aim to develop technologies that enable end-users to engage and control systems consisting of multiple robots. The goal is to enhance the value of industrial products by enabling faster and more cost-effective completion of current tasks and addressing entirely new tasks that require coordinated robot efforts.

Project period: 2021 to 2025 
Budget: DKK 17.08 million 
Partners: University of Southern Denmark, Aalborg University, Copenhagen Business School, AGROINTELLI, ROBOTTO, and the Danish Technological Institute. 

More about the project

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Drone swarms must respond fast in case of natural disasters and drowning accidents

10 OCTOBER 2022

Drone swarms must respond fast in case of natural disasters and drowning accidents

Artificial intelligence must make drone swarms autonomous in order to use them as an effective tool for searches at sea. Drone swarms must also be able to respond fast in the event of floods and other natural disasters.

Researchers from SDU and AAU are currently collaborating with the Aalborg company Robotto and the Danish Emergency Management Agency to develop the autonomous drone swarms.

Robotto is already known from the Danish TV program “My idea – our mission”. Earlier this year, the company won the competition for best climate idea for the development of intelligent drones to help monitor large areas of land and fight wildfires before they get out of control.

Sees things which cannot be seen by the human eye
Together with researchers from University of Southern Denmark and Aalborg University led by Professor Anders Lyhne Christensen from SDU Biorobotics and Associate Professor, PhD Tim Merritt from the Department of Computer Science at Aalborg University, Robotto is now working on developing intelligent drones for use in search operations at sea. The drones will also be able to help rescuers searching for survivors and victims after floods and other natural disasters.

“We work with artificial intelligence and swarm drone technology. Our goal is to get many drones to cooperate so that they can coordinate a search operation over a large area with precision and autonomously. As the drones with artificial intelligence can see much more than the human eye, they are an important tool in future search and rescue efforts,” says Kenneth Richard Geipel, co-founder and CEO of Robotto.

Cheaper and more efficient
Drone swarms are both cheaper to operate and more efficient than rescue helicopters, he adds. The price for a drone is approx. DKK 100,000. In comparison, it costs DKK 16,000 per minute when a rescue helicopter takes off. “The advantage of artificial intelligence is that it can identify patterns and analyze images much more effectively than humans can. Therefore, a drone can search a very large area and look for people and objects in the sea that are impossible for humans to see.”

Must respond in the case of natural disasters
In the long term, the goal is to establish drone airports in strategic locations, so that the drones can quickly move out, for example after oil spills at sea, during floods and other natural disasters, and within very short time help the emergency services with the situation. “Even if we stopped all CO2 emissions tomorrow we will still experience natural disasters like the floods in Pakistan and Florida. Therefore, it makes good sense to have mobile containers with small drones ready, so that they can respond fast in operations in high-risk areas,” says Kenneth Richard Geipel.

In the future, the drones will be able to work completely autonomously and be able to manage missions themselves, he adds. “Drones can already make decisions themselves depending on the situation, and when we get several drones to communicate, it will only require one person on the ground to press start. The drones will take care of the rest together and they figure on their own how to search an area in the best possible way.”