Machinery

Background

WUR student: ‘Developing virtual field robot challenging’

A Wageningen University & Research (WUR) team of eight young agrotechnicians was recently declared the winner of the international Field Robot Event. Due to corona guidelines, this time the assignments were performed entirely virtually. “Less fun, but extra challenging,” says Thomas Frankes, member of the winning team.

Because of the corona pandemic, this time the Field Robot Event was not a competition between field robots in a corn field. The fourteen teams – from countries such as Romania, Poland, Germany and the Netherlands – controlled their robot, a fully digital tool, from behind their own computer screens at home.

“Actually less fun, but at the same time an enormous challenge. Now it was mainly about the right simulation techniques and codes. We worked together for months,” says Thomas Frankes. At the end of the event, his team Robatic won the first prize.

Frankes recently participated with seven fellow students from Wageningen in the 18th Field Robot Event. This is an international competition between student teams, organised by the universities of Wageningen (the Netherlands) and Hohenheim (Germany).

Digital robot

The Wageningen field robot Bullseye, which previous teams from Wageningen continued to develop each year, had to stay in the barn this year. The event organisation provided the teams with a digital robot, Jackal, which they had to further professionalise to be able to perform a number of tasks in a corn field. As quickly as possible, but above all without damaging the crop.

Frankes is studying agrotechnology in Wageningen and is extremely enthusiastic about the development of robot technology in the agricultural sector. “Almost all of my fellow students are farmers’ sons, I am from The Hague and am a real techie. It would have been logical to study in Delft, but I chose Wageningen. Here you are free to decide for yourself what you want to do during your studies. Like in the past few months, were we were given every opportunitity to prepare for the international Field Robot Event.”

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Thomas Frankes (left): "Light field robots have a big advantage: less soil compaction." - Photo: Koos Groenewold
Thomas Frankes (left): "Light field robots have a big advantage: less soil compaction." - Photo: Koos Groenewold

Installing a special gripper arm

The event consisted of several competition components. For example, navigating between straight and interrupted rows of corn plants, detecting debris in the field and the most complicated task: searching for beer cans and weeds, picking them up and then carrying them off to the headland.

“The intention with this last task was to install a special gripper arm on the digital robot. That proved to be very difficult in the preparation. We opted to work with a slide. That gained us points anyway.”

Navigating

Navigating with Frankes’ team’s robot between curved rows of corn plants was done flawlessly during the competition. “Not a single plant was damaged. Other teams did it faster, but with plant damage. We won this part gloriously,” he says excitedly.

In time, robots will replace the farmer in ploughing, planting and harvesting

The strength of his team Robatic? “To do such assignments well, you have to try to make the best use of each other’s qualities. With us, everyone was an expert in their own field and was given total freedom. My focus was on developing navigation techniques with the corresponding codes. I came up with a number of them and then tried them out with my teammates, and one of them won. In the end, you decide together which solution is the best. You always keep a close eye on the core objectives: as little damage to the crop as possible and as quickly as possible.”

Further into robotics

Of course, he would have preferred to be in the clay with a real field robot. “Then you can say afterwards: with this robot, we fixed it together. Now I have nothing more than a few digital files. Still, I’m very proud of our victory.”

After completing his studies, Frankes wants to continue in robotics, preferably in agriculture and horticulture. “In time, robots will replace the farmer in ploughing, planting and harvesting. Not only because of the size of the farms, also because of the problem of soil compaction. I would like to play a role in the innovation of lightweight robots. There are also opportunities in greenhouse farming.”

Aart van Cooten

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