Back in 1950, a farmer would have been able to grow around 2,500 kilograms of wheat per hectare of cropland. Today, that figure has more than tripled. Advances in plant breeding and technical innovations will continue to be necessary in order to feed the growing global population. This is where Bosch’s “Bonirob” agricultural robot can play a part. “We are leveraging our expertise in sensor technology, algorithms, and image recognition to make a contribution to improving quality of life, even in areas that are new for Bosch,” says Professor Amos Albert, a robotics expert and general manager of the Bosch start-up Deepfield Robotics. According to estimates, agricultural yields need to increase by three percent a year to keep up with population growth.
Along with innovative agricultural technology and improved crop protection, more efficient plant breeding will play a particularly important role. In this area, Bonirob automates and speeds up analysis. The robot, which is approximately the size of a compact car, uses video- and lidar-based positioning as well as satellite navigation to find its way around the fields. It knows its position to the nearest centimeter. It also helps minimize the environmental impact of crop farming.
Environment sensors and image processing in plant breeding
Today’s plant scientists are able to analyze the genetic makeup of new varieties in great detail – in the laboratory. However, it is only real field conditions that will show how well the plants actually grow: whether they are resistant to pests such as insects and viruses, and how much fertilizer and water they actually need. In painstaking manual work in the field, plant scientists examine and analyze thousands of plants, recording the size and color of their leaves, the size and shape of fruits, growth forms, insect infestation, and chlorophyll content. Based on these findings, they then decide which plant strains are worth pursuing further. The Bonirob is named after this plant appraisal process, which is known in German as Bonitur. Without this robot, it can take up to ten years before improved crops are ready for the market. The Bosch agricultural robot’s automatic image recognition can help here. “Algorithms analyze the photos taken by scanners and cameras. This automatic screening saves a lot of time and effort,” Albert says.
Weed control with minimum environmental impact
Plant breeding is not the only thing Bonirob is capable of speeding up. The agricultural robot also makes everyday work in the fields easier. On the basis of leaf shape, Bonirob can distinguish between crops and weeds. With the help of a rod, it gets rid of weeds mechanically, rather than with weed killer. Undesired plants are simply and swiftly rammed into the ground.
Increasing intelligence through machine learning
In light of the large number of different plants, Bonirob’s automatic image recognition plays a key role. Albert describes the challenge: “The leaves of carrots and chamomile, for example, are very similar in their early stages.” As a result, he has to teach Bonirob how to learn and recognize the shapes of leaves. How do you “explain” the shape of a carrot leaf to a robotic system? Albert and his team use what is known as machine learning. This involves a large number of image files in which the Bosch researchers highlight the weeds. “Over time, based on parameters such as leaf color, shape, and size, Bonirob learns how to differentiate more and more accurately between the plants we want and the plants we don’t want,” Albert says.
New business thanks to agile teams
Albert and his team are developing the agricultural robot at Deepfield Robotics, a Bosch-owned start-up company that emerged from the work of a corporate research team in 2014. Bonirob is the product of a public joint project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture that saw experts from Bosch, Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, and the agricultural machinery manufacturer Amazone join forces. Under the auspices of Robert Bosch Start-Up GmbH, Bosch has since taken over the task of further developing this high-tech tool. At the 2015 European Robotics Forum in Vienna last spring, Bonirob was singled out for a 2015 euRobotics Technology Transfer Award. In September, the German Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt presented the agricultural robot with an award for innovation in horticulture. It won the Deutscher Innovationspreis Gartenbau in the “technology” category.
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