Advantages of field robots
One such custom system is already integrated in the BlueBob robot, which was developed by Fraunhofer IIS in collaboration with seed supplier Strube D&S GmbH. BlueBob specializes in weed control for sugar beets. With the help of multispectral cameras, the robot records all living plants in the field. From there, the image data is analyzed in real time using artificial intelligence, and plants are categorized as either sugar beets or weeds. The weeds are then removed using both static and active hoeing tools. The robot is capable of processing an area of between 0.5 and 1 hectares per hour, working completely autonomously and with a high level of reliability. This method is clearly superior to conventional techniques. As Oliver Scholz emphasizes: "The advantage lies in the fact that the weeds immediately return the nutrients to the soil because they are left on the field to decompose. If the weeds were treated using pesticides, as is normally the case, the nutrients that make up the plant would be lost instead." This also eliminates the need to increase fertilizer use in response to weed management techniques that leach nutrients from the soil. Throughout the process, farmers can check their results on a tablet, and unlike human workers, the robot is capable of working the fields around the clock, interrupted only by brief stops at the charging station. In addition to weed management, the robot can also be used for other applications, such as precision reading and precision/spot spraying. This involves using sensor technology to identify plants requiring special care and precisely applying pesticides or additional irrigation as needed.
It is important to realize that agriculture operates on a scale of its own: A mere one-percent increase in yield for a quantity of 4.3 million metric tons (the amount of sugar produced in Germany in 2020/21) translates to an increase of 43,000 metric tons. Looking even further into the future, it is possible to envision a scenario in which field robots perform most of the work out on the field—and the natural world would benefit greatly as a result. Oliver Scholz speaks of robots that could be charged using solar power and outfitted with the necessary water and materials in large farm buildings. From there, they would drive out onto the field, where they would take care of every last plant individually: "I can imagine a large robot driving around, weeding and conducting analyses. If it detects any problems, it informs a smaller robot that goes out to check the problem area on its own. This robot could treat sick plants using medication or, in extreme cases, remove them before they infect other plants." Instead of treating hectares upon hectares of plants with chemicals, problems would be handled with targeted solutions. This approach protects groundwater and improves produce quality without triggering resistance in pests or diseases.
The analogy to factory farming is obvious: "You can see it in livestock management, too. When you dose all of the animals with antibiotics to prevent them from getting sick, you have severe consequences down the line with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you treat sick animals individually, you don't have that problem." Additionally, robots can simply drive around any obstacles they encounter on the field, a process that can be extremely time-consuming for tractors. This removes the incentive to clear gigantic, rectangular fields for the production of monocultures. Instead, small stands of trees and shrubs can be left on the fields, where they help to counteract soil erosion.