Transforming Agriculture with AI
In the vast expanse of agricultural landscapes, the age-old challenge of weed control has been met with a revolutionary solution. Enter Ekobot WEAI, a formidable wheeled robot designed by the Swedish company Ekobot AB. As anyone who has pulled weeds in a garden knows, the task is tedious. Imagine scaling it up to farm-sized proportions, and it becomes a formidable nightmare. Traditional alternatives, such as herbicides, pose potential risks to the environment, animals, and humans. Ekobot WEAI, however, stands as a beacon of innovation, offering an autonomous and efficient means of recognizing and plucking weeds using metal fingers.
The four-wheeled wonder, powered by a robust battery, can operate tirelessly for 10–12 hours on a single charge. Weighing a sturdy 1,322 pounds, it boasts a top speed of 2.5 mph. Ekobot WEAI is finely tuned for weeding fields that host onions, beetroots, carrots, and similar vegetables, covering approximately 24.7 acres in a day. Navigation is seamlessly executed using GPS RTK, augmented by safety sensors and vision systems that prevent unintended collisions with objects or people.
What sets Ekobot WEAI apart is its AI-powered machine vision system. As it traverses the farm field, this advanced technology identifies weeds and directs a series of metal fingers to swiftly remove them from the soil. The significance of this innovation lies not just in its efficiency but in the reduction of herbicide usage. In trials, Ekobot claims that its weed-plucking robot allowed farmers to grow onions with a remarkable 70 percent fewer herbicides.
The success of Ekobot WEAI extends beyond the fields and into the realm of technology integration. Two years ago, Ekobot collaborated with Swedish telecom company Telia to integrate 5G mobile technology into the robot. This development enables the robot to communicate remotely with a central server, sharing valuable data collected during its weed-patrolling missions. The result? The birth of “5G onions” – a product of a pilot project for onion cultivation.
According to Telia, “5G onions” bring more than just technological prowess to the table. These onions exhibit an extended shelf life, reduced wastage, and enhanced taste. The efficient weeding process, coupled with reduced pesticide usage, allows onion shoots to thrive, receiving more sunlight and nutrients. This not only contributes to sustainability but also results in onions that are hardier and more flavoursome.
A press release from Telia states, “The 5G onion is not only more sustainable—it also tastes better. This is because efficient weeding and reduced use of pesticides enables onion shoots to grow more freely and for longer, enabling the onions to receive more sunlight and nutrients, making them more hardy and tasty.” While Ekobot revolutionises weed control, another innovation takes flight in the battle against airborne agricultural pests. The National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO) in Japan is pioneering a system that predicts the flight paths of insects using AI and shoots them down with laser beams.
The primary target of this laser-powered pest control system is the Spodoptera litura, a notorious pest known for its ability to quickly develop resistance to pesticides. NARO’s system employs a stereo camera to detect and predict the three-dimensional flight patterns of these pests. By integrating AI analysis, the team successfully developed simulations that allow the precise emission of laser beams, exterminating pests without the use of harmful chemicals.
As the global population surges, the demand for food is predicted to be 1.7 times higher in 2050 than it was in 2010. However, factors such as climate change, desertification, and the sudden increase in pests are hindering the growth of food production worldwide. Reports suggest that 15.6% of the total food produced globally is wasted due to pest damage. This emphasises the urgent need for efficient extermination methods to ensure a steady food supply.
Traditionally, pests are dealt with through the application of pesticides, but this method is far from perfect. Pests develop resistance to old pesticides, leading to overcompensation by applying excessive amounts. This harms the surrounding ecosystem and biodiversity. As existing products lose their effectiveness, the development of new pesticides becomes a time-consuming and costly process.
The Japanese government, recognizing the need for innovative extermination methods, included the matter in its “Moonshot Research & Development Program.” NEDO and other organisations involved in the project are working on laser technology that exterminates the Spodoptera litura, one of the most commonly known pests.
The Spodoptera litura, about 2 centimetres long and similar to moths, poses a significant threat to crops such as soybean, cabbage, tomatoes, and strawberries. To combat this pest, the team aims to zap the adult Spodoptera litura in the air, exterminating them without pesticides before they lay eggs in the crops. A laser beam will bombard the pest from about 10 to 30 metres away, and the resulting heat will exterminate the insect.
This system employs a stereo camera to grasp the distance between the equipment and the pest. It detects the three-dimensional location of the flying Spodoptera litura and quickly bombards it with a laser beam. Considering that pests are more active at night, the team has worked on detection in the dark. However, they faced a challenge when they realised there was a slight time lag.
From the point of pest detection to the point of laser emission, there is a very slight delay of about 0.03 seconds. As a result, the laser beam is slightly off target because the Spodoptera litura flies irregularly at about 2 metres per second. In response, the team developed technology that predicts the flight path of the insect.
To train the AI, they released eight Spodoptera litura into a dark space that was 2.5 metres wide, 5 metres long, and 2 metres high. Photos of the insects’ movements were taken with the stereo camera at a specific shutter speed, and this process was repeated more than 100 times. Using AI analysis of 100,000 images, the team worked out the three-dimensional flight patterns of the Spodoptera litura.
The team analysed the flight patterns in detail and made flight prediction models, enabling them to create simulations and accurately predict the position of the pests 0.03 seconds after detection, with a margin of error of about 1.4 centimetres. This precision is crucial in ensuring that the laser beam can be emitted preemptively toward the predicted position.
While the laser beam is not harmful to human skin, safety measures are in place, such as shutting down the beam if a human is detected. Once operational, this technology promises to eliminate concerns over the waning effectiveness of pesticides, offering a safe and environmentally friendly approach to pest control.
Despite the progress, challenges remain, particularly in improving the precision of predicted pest positions. The team is steadfast in pursuing this goal, with the aim of making this science-fiction-like extermination technology a reality by 2025. Plans include incorporating drones and robots, enabling free movement across wide spaces regardless of the time of day. This integration not only increases efficiency but also minimises the need for human monitoring.
The technology’s applications extend beyond farmlands; it could be used to exterminate flies, mosquitoes, and cockroaches in households, particularly in homes with infants or pets where pesticides cannot be used. Aya Sugiura, head of one of the NARO teams, expresses excitement, stating, “We want to reduce damage caused by pests without pesticides and contribute to a sustainable society as well as farming that is kind to the environment.”
As we stand at the crossroads of technological innovation and agriculture, the landscape is evolving. The marriage of cutting-edge technology with the art of farming is not just a leap; it’s a bound into a future where robots patrol fields, AI identifies weeds, and laser beams eliminate pests. The 5G onions and laser pest control are not merely innovations; they represent a commitment to a future where farming is not only efficient but also mindful of the environment.
In conclusion, the journey toward a sustainable and technologically advanced agricultural future is well underway. From the fields of Sweden to the research labs of Japan, these innovations signify not just a change in tools but a transformative shift in the way we cultivate the food that sustains us. As we look ahead to 2025 and beyond, the landscape of agriculture is set to undergo a profound transformation, driven by the relentless pursuit of innovation and sustainability.
This era heralds not only the rise of AI, robots, and laser precision but the dawn of a new age in farming—one that balances productivity with environmental stewardship, ensuring a bountiful harvest for generations to come. For all my daily news and tips on AI, Emerging technologies at the intersection of humans, just sign up for my FREE newsletter at www.robotpigeon.beehiiv.com