Low-cost robofarmer coming to a greenhouse near you
Robots are on the march. Every day, new developments and applications emerge to replace humans in dangerous areas: battlefields, nuclear plants, disaster areas and so on. Soon, they will also appear in the more bucolic territory of gardeners, florists and herb growers. At least this is what engineers are attempting at the Argentine National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) who developed Trakür (‘fog’ in the Mapuche language), a robot for the safe application of agrochemicals in greenhouses.
“Quite simply, with Trakür, we will eliminate the main pitfall for producers in greenhouses: maintaining an optimal atmosphere for keeping pests at bay which is highly toxic to humans due to the presence of pesticides,” said the engineer in charge of the project, Gerardo Masia. “Now this problem can be eliminated as the robot will be the one who does the job and the worker will instead become an operator.”
It is true that Trakür is far from the stylized image of robots in movies. It looks like a kid’s wagon, but promises to be very nimble. It will be able to configure its spray bar, adjusting vertically to the trellis lines, or horizontally for conventional crops. In both cases, it uses a fan to help diffuse droplets into the foliage. It also has wireless telemetry systems such as sensors that report “levels of pesticide, battery status, speed, flow rate, the target distance and separation between the sprayers and obstacles alerts,” explained Nicolas Clemares, of the electronics laboratory at INTA. What is the expected result? Greater chemical application efficiency as well as safer transport.
One of the challenges set by the INTA was that Trakür be simple, robust and low-cost to allow for rapid adoption. Most of the places where the robot will be used are low-production family farms with minimal investment capacity. To this end, engineers at INTA used industry-standard components, “nothing was developed ad hoc for the robot” they explained. One of the riskiest characteristics was the guidance system which enables the robot to follow electromagnetic signals along a laid rail, which requires installation. The technicians recognize that this option is perhaps the weak point in the team’s SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, but it led to the highest savings when compared to other systems available on the international market that use GPS, cameras, or radar. “The products on the market, which have hardly penetrated Argentina, begin at $9000,” said Masia. “And Trakür, as a prototype [excluding development time] is well below that figure.”
With these features and cost savings, it’s no wonder Trakür has received interest from several manufacturers. “We are already in conversations with the Secretary of Small and Medium Businesses at the Ministry of Industry in order to finance the transfer in December to an association of cooperative workshops in order to begin production,” according to INTA.
Juan can be reached at juan.dalmasso(at)gmail.com