FIRA autonomous robots

May 3, 2024
Autonomous robots: Vegetable industry savior?

Can autonomous robots be the salvation for the vegetable industry’s labor woes?

The latest World FIRA event showcased a wide range of robots and autonomous solutions for vegetable growing.

Emilie Casteil of Carottes de France explained how new technologies seek to offer a promising alternative to herbicides for in-row weed control.

FIRA ag robotics Throughout the agriculture industry, various regulations seek to limit the use of chemical inputs. The motivation for these updated standards is well-meaning. Fewer chemicals translate into a decrease in air and water pollution, and better protection of growers, agricultural workers and local residents.

The downsides for farmers, however, are often overlooked. Such regulations place a greater burden on producers who have limited options to fight against pests, diseases and weeds. For carrot farmers in France, the latter problem has become borderline untenable.

One person who is intimately familiar with the challenges French carrot farmers face is Emilie Casteil. As the project manager for Carottes de France, an association comprised of 190 French growers producing 190,000 tons of carrots for the fresh market, Casteil understands the strain these regulations have put on farmers across the country.

“Weeding carrots is a very big issue in France,” she said. “It’s the number-one issue having to do with carrots because we only have eight active ingredients we can use, and it’s not enough to manage all the weeds in the field. For some weeds, like nuts edge and black nightshade, we don’t have any chemical solutions. They don’t exist in France.”

Carrot field infested with black nightshades
Carrot field infested with black nightshades

With few active ingredients approved for use, these producers are forced to increase their reliance on manual weeding or wait for the AgTech industry to deliver robotic solutions. Currently, the only viable option is manual weeding — a solution that is expensive, labor-intensive and often requires help from a workforce that continues to become scarcer with time.

“It’s a very big problem right now, and we also know that more active ingredients will disappear in the next two to three years,” Casteil said. “We think it will be very difficult to produce carrots in France. We have to find a solution soon, or it will not be possible.”

Casteil believes robots and other autonomous machines are the only real solution to this problem. Mechanical weeding products are available, but because carrots are slow to emerge from the ground and are small and fragile when they do, most mechanized weeding ends up killing some of the crop it’s trying to save. Lasers, electricity, and microwave solutions are far better options, though most aren’t yet field ready.

The industry is currently stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the technology to catch up to farmers’ needs. There are solutions on the horizon, though. Casteil has been impressed with the LaserWeeder from Carbon Robotics, which uses artificial intelligence and high-powered lasers to detect and eliminate weeds at the meristem, before they compete with crops for nutrients and other resources.

“It seems to be the best solution on the market, but it might not be adapted for all French farmers,” Casteil said. “In southwest France, for example, we have very large farms that range from 600 to 1,000 hectares (1,483 to 2,470 acres) with plots that are 20 hectares (50 acres). The LaserWeeder would be great for these farms because it is a good size, and it would be economical for these farmers. They could afford to buy it.”

Read more of the story here.

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