In Search of Farm Robots: Ch2 Denmark

This article originally appeared in “The Grower”

A visit to Denmark in search of farm robotics expanded to include wide span tractors, controlled traffic farming, growing Christmas trees and farm nutrient management plans and audits.

Automation of the agricultural sector has EU and government attention and funding. Despite an influx of refugees and workers from Eastern Europe, the focus is filling a labour void in the agricultural sector.

The new USD Tek Centre housing an engineering research group of around 500 people at the University of Southern Denmark (USD) illustrates the investment. 

The Tek Centre at University of Southern Denmark illustrates the investment Europe is making in agritech development

Research institutes, municipalities and government are working on a proposal to turn a nearby commercial airport into a specialised unpiloted aerial system (UAS/UAV) facility.

USD is developing unmanned aerial systems to distribute beneficial insects to grapevines. Ground application results in losses as many beneficials cannot climb to colonise the target plant. The technical hurdle is UAS control – needing to control flight to release the beneficials from 200-500 mm above the canopy.

USD Robotic specialist Kjeld Jensen promotes open source software as key to increasing the pace of development. Having access to standards, stable architecture and software libraries means researchers can focus on new things rather than constantly reinventing the wheel.

An innovation hub in Struer was established in a facility donated by Ericsson Communications when they shifted research and development from Denmark. It is now home to about 150 technologists in a number of start-up companies.

Resident ConPleks Innovation develops automation technology for other manufacturers (for example Intelligent Marking and MinkPapir). The availability of such support makes it much easier for traditional companies to enter the field of robotics. 

At the Agro Food Park in Aarhus, AgroIntelli has a focus on autonomy for weed control in organic productions systems, a movement apparently stronger in Europe than in New Zealand. This start-up grew out of a disbanded Kongskilde R&D group.

Safety of unmanned systems is critical. All the above are involved in “SAFE”, a project that brings together major agricultural machinery manufacturers and universities to develop advanced sensors, perception algorithms, rational behaviours for semi-automated tractors and implements and finally autonomous robots.

Hans Henrik Pedersen is well known to LandWISE members for his work on controlled traffic farming and gantry tractors. At Kjeldahl Farms on Samso we saw the prototype 9m ASA-Lift gantry. At 20+tonnes plus another 20+ tonnes with a hopper of onions it’s not a small machine. It seems version two will be different, but development funding is yet to be found.

The ASA-Lift 9m wide span gantry tractor at Kjeldahl Farms

At the Aarhus Agro Food Park Dan Bloomer delivered a presentation on Precision Agriculture in New Zealand to 70 Dutch agronomists and agrichem representatives touring Denmark. An afternoon field trip visited a biogas generator on a dairy farm and a facility for high quality Christmas tree production.

Specialist equipment for commercial production of Christmas trees fits narrow rows and automates labour intensive tasks

Other presentations covered the operation of SEGES, a farmer owned agricultural research and extension organisation performing more than 1,000 field trials every year in partnership with universities, government departments, businesses and trade associations.

SEGES covers all aspects of farming and farm management – from crop production, the environment, livestock farming and organic production to finance, tax legislation, IT architecture, accounting, HR, training and conservation.

A lot of work involves nutrient management. Denmark introduced nitrogen regulations in 1994. We are only now at a similar position. Caps introduced to stop leaching halved losses by 2014 by which time the nitrogen cap was about 25% lower than the economic optimum.  With most benefit coming from improved handling of animal manures, the cap is now being lifted.

All Danish farmers must have nutrient management plans with budgets and fertiliser purchase documentation and application records. They are must report annually, work mostly being done by about 3,500 consultants. All fertiliser sales are reported to the Environment Agency so farm reports can be audited.

Dan’s travel was supported by a Trimble Foundation Study Grant