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Researchers develop robot for synecoculture farming

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Japanese researchers have developed a four-wheeled, two orthogonal axes mechanism robot to maintain plants grown under the farming method of synecoculture.

Synecoculture involves growing mixed plant species together in high density. Synecoculture is an approach by Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. (Sony CSL), and advocated by Dr. Masatoshi Funabashi, senior researcher at Sony CSL, in which ecosystems are artificially created for cultivating a rich variety of crops while also enriching local biodiversity. It can be a complex operation since varying species with different growing seasons and growing speeds are planted on the same land.

 According to Tokyo-based Waseda University, while the operational issues present with synecoculture can be addressed by using an agricultural robot, most existing robots can only automate one of the three tasks (sowing, pruning, harvesting) in a simple farmland environment, thus falling short of the literacy and decision-making skills required of them to perform synecoculture. Moreover, the robots may make unnecessary contact with the plants and damage them, affecting their growth and the harvest.

 A group of researchers led by Takuya Otani, an assistant professor at Waseda University, in collaboration with Sustainergy Company and Sony CSL, have designed a new robot that can perform synecoculture effectively. The robot is called SynRobo, with “syn” conveying the meaning of “together with” humans. It manages a variety of mixed plants grown in the shade of solar panels, an otherwise unutilized space. An article describing their research was published in Volume 13, Issue 1 of Agriculture, on 21 December 2022. This article has been co-authored by Professor Atsuo Takanishi, also from Waseda University, other researchers of Sony CSL, and students from Waseda University.

According to Otani, the robot has a four-wheel mechanism that enables movement on uneven land and a robotic arm that expands and contracts to help overcome obstacles. The robot can move on slopes and avoid small steps.

“The system also utilizes a 360-degree camera to recognize and manoeuvre its surroundings,” said Otani. “In addition, it is loaded with various farming tools – anchors (for punching holes), pruning scissors and harvesting setups. The robot adjusts its position using the robotic arm and an orthogonal axes table that can move horizontally.”

Besides these features, the researchers also invented techniques for efficient seeding. They coated seeds from different plants with soil to make equally-sized balls. These made their shape and size consistent, so the robot could easily sow seeds from multiple plants. Furthermore, a human-controlled manoeuvring system was developed to facilitate the robot’s functionality. The system helps it operate tools, implement automatic sowing and switch tasks.

The new robot could successfully sow, prune, and harvest in dense vegetation, making minimal contact with the environment during the tasks because of its small and flexible body. In addition, the new manoeuvring system enabled the robot to avoid obstacles 50 percent better while reducing its operating time by 49 percent, compared to a simple controller.

“This research has developed an agricultural robot that works in environments where multiple species of plants grow in dense mixtures,” Otani said. “It can be widely used in general agriculture as well as synecoculture – only the tools need to be changed when working with different plants.”

Otani added the robot will contribute to improving the yield per unit area and increase farming efficiency. Moreover, its agricultural operation data will help automate the manoeuvring system. As a result, robots could assist agriculture in a plethora of environments. “In fact, Sustainergy Company is currently preparing to commercialize this innovation in abandoned fields in Japan and desertified areas in Kenya, among other places.”

Photo: Researchers have developed a small and flexible agricultural robot for synecoculture farming. It has a four-wheel mechanism, two axes stand, robotic arm, camera unit, manoeuvring system and farming tools. Photo: Waseda University

Read the NOV/DEC 2022 issue of New AG International, free to view here.

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