Wageningen’s research into intelligent agricultural and horticultural robots will receive 12 to 17 million euros from the NXTGEN HIGHTECH program. The contribution from the National Growth Fund of the Ministry of Economy and Climate is intended to give a major boost to agri-food technology.
The Netherlands is the third largest exporter of clay and food technology machinery in the world, and Dutch companies and knowledge institutions want to continue to play a leading role in this field. For this purpose, NXTGEN HIGHTECH was created. In total more than 1 billion euros were distributed within the high-tech sector, including nearly 200 million for the hands-free food industry. Robotic technology for agriculture and horticulture is one of the fund’s six application areas, in addition to clean energy, laser communication, drug development, faster chips and lightweight materials .
The contribution from the fund must allow cultivation to be as autonomous as possible. “Agriculture still requires a lot of manual labor and labor is becoming increasingly scarce. This is one of the reasons to further develop robotics in agriculture and horticulture,” says Erik Pekkeriet, head of the Agro Food Robotics research program at WUR.
Less cost, more nature
“On the other hand, you would like to encourage sustainability. To do this, we need tools with sensors that collect data and help in decision making. This way, farmers can make much better choices and use chemicals, water, fertilizers and energy more economically. And it will also become easier to make decisions that guarantee more biodiversity. At the same time, it allows you to better manage the quality of your product. WUR will work on this with dozens of (commercial) partners.
Applications include outdoor cultivation, from growing to harvesting, and processing. Field sensors will monitor growth, giving farmers an extra eye. Cameras on windmills, for example, help monitor nutrient deficiencies or excess water. For harvesting, there will be much improved harvesting robots. Pekkeriet: “Consider harvesting strip crops. Harvesters are not yet able to properly manage these crops, so strip cropping involves a lot of extra work. With the new machines, that will be a thing of the past, he hopes.
Working together in the farm yard
Robotization continues on the farm. To avoid collisions, the robots must be able to “communicate” with the tractors in the yard. “One question is how you can make it brand independent,” says Pekkeriet. “At the same time, it is possible to improve safety in a yard with such robots, so that children can play safely outside at the same time.” In addition to outdoor cultivation, there are applications in greenhouse horticulture and the food industry.
Simplify the life of farmers
The projects that are about to start will rely on existing systems. These have already been tested in a relevant environment in agriculture or in the food industry, but the business-economic validation still needs to be improved. “A lot is already possible”, according to Pekkeriet, “but the individual systems do not yet communicate well with each other and are not user-friendly. This worries the farmer, when the technology should be there to make his life easier. This is why Pekkeriet aims to simplify the virtual environment for farmers: it wants to “bring the field to the farmer”, so to speak.
Does this mean that the farmer will no longer have to leave the door? “On the contrary, the farmer will have more time to monitor the fields instead of driving a tractor. I think it will allow them to see and do other things. Sustainability will become much more important,” he expects.
Test in practice
To achieve its goals, WUR focuses on technical development, extensive testing, and farm-wide integration. Farms, greenhouses and factories of the future are emerging all over the country, with each application area having its own location. Most of the project’s new systems are expected to be ready for use by 2029.