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Heading to MARS

This new ag robot concept uses swarms of small machines

A new research project underway in Europe may give farmers a reason to think swarms are a good thing. Far from swarms of locusts or other troublesome pests, the MARS (Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarms) pro­ject is working on creating swarms of small, autonomous robots that can seed farm fields on their own.

The MARS project is sponsored by the European Union and the development work is currently being done jointly by AGCO’s Fendt brand and researchers at the University of Ulm in Germany.

The swarm of small-scale robots can be controlled through cloud-based digital technology. Seeding or planting operations can be planned and monitored using the MARS app. And the amount of data and precision available through this system is astonishing.

The exact placement of each individual seed can be documented and saved in the cloud. Subsequent cultivation or herbicide applications throughout the season can then be executed extremely precisely, using fewer inputs.

“This procedure promotes sustainable, economic handling of food and pesticides and increases the potential of higher yield,” according to Fendt’s press release. “Through their battery-powered, electric drive, low weight and autonomous operation, sowing can also take place under conditions where conventional farming usually cannot be used due to light and ground conditions or noise emissions.”

An operator can set the requirements for field seeding using an app and monitor the swarm’s progress in real time via cloud-based digital system.
photo: Fendt

The mini robots are hauled to a field in a special carrier trailer and then turned loose to get the work done. The system provides the operator with continuous feedback and data on the overall operation.

“An intelligent algorithm (OptiVisor) plans the robot operations based on the parameters that have been entered and calculates the time required to complete the task,” the Fendt release says.

“As soon as the logistics unit has been positioned, the use of the robots can be started with the app. While they are working, the robots communicate with the cloud so that geo-co-ordinates can be saved for the location of each seed. The OptiVisor algorithm guarantees reliable sowing of maize (corn) kernels at all times.”

If a robot should ever fail, other units nearby will instantly step in to take over, the project scientists say. Work progress can also be followed live with the app, while the proprietary OptiVisor algorithm monitors the charging state of the robots’ batteries and ensures that all batteries are recharged in due time at the logistics unit.

The project is still under development and there is no word yet on when or if MARS will see commercial release. However, given the state of robotics development in everything from Amazon parcel delivery to Google self-driving cars, odds are we’ll hear more about this before long.

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CG Machinery Editor

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