Nine months ago, we brought you the news that IAM Agricultural Machinery, Irish importers of Strautmann, Hardi and Bomford brands, had been appointed as sole Irish distributors for the Danish-built autonomous seed ’n’ weed robot, called the FarmDroid FD20.
Shortly after, the FD20 made its first public appearance at the 2022 National Ploughing Championships, where it scooped the NPA Machine of the Year award.
Fast forward nine months, we caught up with Ireland’s first unit to see it in action, weeding a 6ac trial plot of beet it had previously sown earlier in May. The trial plot contains quite a few stones and was chosen intentionally to see how it performs.
A firm believer that the FarmDroid has serious potential in Ireland, IAM Agricultural Machinery has appointed John Lawless to head up the project. John walked us through the machine earlier in the month.
In recent years, many people have become accustomed to reading about developments in robotics and autonomous concept machines, whether within the automotive or farming industry and not only led by conventional manufacturers, but startups and universities too. The problem is, almost all of these tend to be in the concept phase or testing stages which can last up to a decade before becoming a commercial reality. For these reasons, we’ve seen very few make it to the point of being available at farm level.
However, with one Danish startup this was not the case. FarmDroid is the company responsible for one of the world’s first fully automatic robots capable of precision sowing and mechanically weeding crops.
The company is the brainchild of brothers Jens and Kristian Warming, having initially come up with the idea of an autonomous farm robot in 2011 to help farmers reduce and eliminate the need for labour in sugar beet production. Following the company’s launch in 2018, FarmDroid sold its first FD20 robot in 2019. Since then, its main focus has been on establishing a European network of distributors and dealers. Today, FarmDroid has over 400 robots working in over 12 countries and employs over 50 members of staff. The FD20 has been successfully tried and tested planting and weeding other crops like onions, spinach, kale and rapeseed.
How it works
In essence, the FarmDroid FD20 is a solar-powered, self-sufficient, GPS-guided robot that records the exact location where every seed is planted. By knowing each plant’s location, mechanical hoeing or weeding can then be done in subsequent passes, removing the need for costly camera systems.
The whole process is controlled and monitored remotely via phone app or desktop portal. Everything from forward speed and run time, to seeding and weeding settings etc can be controlled remotely. Alternatively, the FD20 can be controlled using its on-board touch terminal and control joystick. However, there is a degree of manual adjustment available on the unit itself; this tends to be all done with 10mm and 13mm spanners.
Requiring pinpoint accuracy, the FarmDroid needs its own RTK base station within a 10km radius. Combined with the two on-board receivers, the FD20 records the exact position where it places each individual seed. By working at such slow speeds, it can work to achieve sub 1cm accuracies. These on-board receivers will only work within the allocated geo-fence, otherwise the brakes will engage and the FD20 will not move until manual intervention.
With seed position recorded, the robot then knows exactly where to weed. Fine weeding settings such as the distance from the plant can all be tweaked on the go via the app.
The complete unit weighs in at a total of 900kg (standard battery option). The chassis and most metal parts are constructed from stainless steel as standard.
On top, the FD20 is fitted with four solar panels totalling an area of 3m x 2.5m which captures the sunlight and stores the energy within two 120ah lithium ion batteries. The two rear wheels are driven via 400w electric motors and steer the front guide wheel. The robot is surrounded by a safety wire that brings it to a sudden stop once interfered with. The farmer is also messaged in this circumstance and the unit needs to be manually reset.
Between the front and rear wheels sits the dynamic and electrically adjustable tool or hitch system. The maximum working width is 3m. Four-, six- and eight-row planting/ weeding is possible with row distances ranging from 25-75cm. However, the machine we visited was set up as a six-row machine. The reason for this was to accommodate the beet harvester configuration that will harvest the crop in due course. Aside from the toolbar being electrically actuated, each row can be fine-tuned via mechanical adjustment to achieve the desired downward pressure on the coulter and packer wheel, for example.
A rain gauge is also built into the FD20. If rain starts to fall during either the sowing or weeding process and exceeds the set level, the brakes will engage and the robot will cease operations. The solar panel acts as a hood over the toolbar which is hinged and can be raised via gas struts for access purposes. A camera positioned on the underside of the solar panels transmits a live stream of the hitch and seeding/weeding process.
The FD20 is transported via tractor using a dedicated three-point linkage frame. Upon entering the tilled field, the FD20 is transported around the boundary on the three-point linkage so that the corner points and potential obstacles can be recorded. This creates a geo-fence that the robot knows it must work within.
The operator then inputs variables such as seed type, sowing pattern, distance between seeds, placement depth and the number of headland rounds required.
The robot, in theory, can work at up to 950m/hr or up to 6ha/day. In seeding mode, speeds ranging between 500-650m/h are more realistic.
This equates to 0.15 and 0.2ha/hr or 3-4.5ha/day. Soil conditions will also have a part to play in forward speed.
The electronic seed metering system knows exactly where each seed is to be positioned and opens the seed valve accordingly. An infrared sensor detects when the seed drops and if for some reason it doesn’t drop, the user will then be alerted.
The seeding unit is constructed from stainless steel with a removable 6l plastic hopper on each. Similar to a standard precision seeder, each seeding unit features two roller discs to cut a slit in the surface, followed by a furrow opener which creates the slot for the seed to fall into. The rear pressure wheel closes the slot and consolidates the surface. Once sowing is complete, the small seed hoppers are removed and the coulters moved out of position. At this point, the FD20 now knows the position of every seed sown.
According to James, seeding of the 6ac IAM trial plot began on 4 May at 7.30pm and, by 5.40am the following morning, 56% of the field had been sown. In under 16 hours, sowing had been completed at the average set speed of 683m/h.
Depending on weed pressure, the unit can get straight to work after seeding or at the intervals required. When we visited the trial plot the unit was weeding once a week, not to remove weeds but to prevent establishment and a root structure forming. If this was a camera-based system, it would have to wait until weeds emerge before inter-row hoeing could begin. Forward speed while weeding is naturally a faster process than seeding and can take place between 650-800m/hr comfortably (0.2-0.24ha/hr). Weeding once a week, IAM believes between 25 and 28ha is an achievable output from one machine.
To set the FD20 up for weeding, the three mechanical arrow-shaped or cheese wire type tine hoes on each row are moved into position, a relatively easy process, James said. These tines are designed for shallow inter-row surface disturbance and prevent weed establishment.
Solenoid-actuated blades carry out intra-row weeding. Timing is adapted to the standard seeding distance, but the farmer can easily adjust the timing of the weeding arm to go closer or further from the crop. In the trial plot, John has increased blade timings marginally as the beet plant grows for more precise weeding.
Given the abundance of sunlight currently, the FarmDroid can work away pretty much indefinitely while recharging its batteries. Once the sunlight disappears, it then operates off its batteries. FarmDroid quotes run times solely on battery power to be between 18-24 hours. Sowing tends to be a little more power hungry given the additional level of drag by the planters. Charging from practically 0% to 100% while working takes in the region of six to eight hours in ideal conditions.
Two additional 120ah lithium ion batteries are optionally available for retrofit, doubling run times, an option worth considering for locations which have less sunlight, John stated. Luckily, being in the sunny southeast, the FarmDroid has more than met the expectations in terms of run time and charge times given the long hours of daily sunlight experienced so far. Obviously, as the days get shorter this will inevitably change.
Does it have a place in Irish agriculture/horticulture?
Having seen the FarmDroid in operation, it’s hard not to be impressed by a number of factors. Firstly, its overall simplicity. Being used to the ever-increasing size of tractor-drawn machinery, seeing the FD20 in operation is a breath of fresh air.
In organic beet or vegetable production, weeding can be a costly and time-consuming process, often relying on manual labour. As a result, the weeding aspect of the FD20 will be a major attraction for many customers and could lead to thousands of euros in savings.
Like most autonomous vehicles, such as robotic lawnmowers, working width and speed is less of an issue. Instead, such machines have the advantage of consistency and continuous operation, chipping away until the job is done. When we think of robots, we automatically assume such machines are complex in terms of control. This isn’t the case with the FarmDroid. Setup and tweaking the unit as it works is simple.
Secondly, the fact it is CO2 neutral is impressive. Having watched the unit in operation for a number of hours weeding without using as much as 1ml of diesel or chemical to do the job was impressive. That said, it’s obviously not a system that’s going to outright take over from traditional methods any time soon. But, it is a system that we can see working alongside traditional methods.
With a price tag of €87,000 plus VAT plus another €10,000 for the RTK base station, the overall capital cost isn’t out of the way when compared to the investment of a tractor, precision planter and mechanical inter-row hoe, not to mention labour and other running costs. However, working capacity is without doubt the limiting factor.
In countries like our own where short weather windows can prove challenging for spring and autumn planting, watching the FD20 sowing at less than 1km/h in a snatch and grab scenario will obviously cause frustration. On the flip side, it can work continuously in such windows but the likely scenario is that it still wouldn’t have the same output as our modern tractor-drawn equipment.
If the FD20 could be aided while sowing when needs be by means of a tractor and drill using RTK guidance, which could then share seed placement data with the FarmDroid robot for weeding purposes, then there could be a real mutual benefit.
Obviously, being a relatively new technology, FarmDroid feels it is only yet scratching the surface in terms of what is possible.
A third-party company has developed a camera aided spot spraying system for plant protection and pesticide application.. The application of liquid fertiliser is another avenue currently being explored along with ridge weeding. The seeding and management of cereal crops is also said to be on the way while a large seed version with wider row spacings is also in development to handle maize, beans and similar seeds.
Note: You can see Ireland’s first FarmDroid FD20 working as part of the horticulture demonstration at the Crops and Cover Crop Cultivations open day in Tegasc Oak Park on 21 June. Personnel from IAM Agricultural Machinery will also be on hand to answer any possible questions.
Working width: 3m.
Recommended capacity: 20ha.
Compatible crops: beet, beetroots, onions, spinach, rapeseed and herbs.
Max automated working speed: 950m/h.
Max manual speed: 1,100m/h.
Seed box capacity: 6l.
Row distance: 22.5cm-75cm.
Total weight: 900kg.
List price: €97,000 plus VAT.