Collaboration between farmers and robots may prove vital to allowing Japan’s aging agricultural workforce to continue producing for crops while ensuring wisdom learned from years on the land is not lost.
Not only will the use of robotics in agriculture reduce manual labor, it is hoped it will enable aging farmers to stay on the land longer and to more efficiently get the most out of their hard won experience.
While automated farming machinery, mostly working in straight lines, is already available on the market, it requires high accuracy positioning information to do the job.
Thus far, the machinery has used a combination of Global Positioning System information supplemented with corrective data sent from ground-based stations.
Depending on the lay of the land, however, farming machinery occasionally strays up to 10 meters from its plotted path due to GPS systems not always providing completely accurate information.
On June 1, Japan put its second quasi-zenith satellite, Michibiki No. 2, into orbit to enhance the precision of GPS in the country. Two more navigation satellites are also planned to be launched by the end of 2017 to provide accurate, round-the-clock GPS data.
The quasi-zenith system ensures one of the planned four satellites will be above Japan at any one time, unlike in the 32-satellite U.S.-owned GPS system in which satellites orbit on various paths around the earth, with a minimum of four required to be in view for the receiver to compute its location.
When the four Japanese satellites are operating, the margin of error is expected to be narrowed to as little as several centimeters.
The agricultural ministry, meanwhile, adopted a set of guidelines in March for use of autonomous farming machinery, such as banning self-driving units on roads and allowing only operators to enter farmland where autonomous machines are working.
The guidelines prompted leading farm equipment manufacturer Kubota Corp. to start selling advanced self-driving tractors on a trial basis on June 1.
While the guidelines cover the use of self-driving machinery under on-site supervision of humans, a team of researchers at the Graduate School of Agriculture of Hokkaido University is developing a tractor that can be controlled remotely.
The team is working on a robotized system that automatically observes the surrounding environment, recognizes abnormal obstacles and avoids them or halts operation if necessary.
During a recent trial, a team member maneuvered a prototype tractor via a tablet computer. Equipped with technology allowing positioning information to be used as well as various sensors and other devices, the tractor automatically stopped when it recognized the presence of an obstacle.
Professor and team leader Noboru Noguchi said a planned tractor, capable of autonomously cultivating, leveling ground and puddling rice paddies at night will become available “within a few years.”
If machines can analyze weather and soil data, it will make it possible to predict disease and pest infestations and crop yields per 50 square meter field, thus enabling refined farming operations such as focused distribution of fertilizers where they are most needed, according to experts in the field.
The use of such detailed data, therefore, helps avoid wasteful use of fertilizers and agricultural chemicals, improves the efficiency of farming operations, enhances the safety of agricultural products and contributes to the protection of the environment.
Beginning this autumn, the university team will conduct verification tests on a fully unmanned tractor in a 950-hectare area of land in Hokkaido, taking into consideration actual restrictions such as the use of radio waves and the road traffic law.
To put agricultural robots to work, it is important for people concerned, including researchers, engineers and farmers to allow a process of “trial and error” to play out, Noguchi said.
Certainly, agricultural robots cannot take over all farming operations.
Shigeru Someya, a large-scale rice grower in Kashiwa, near Tokyo, said while advances in agricultural equipment have made farming operations more efficient, it has led to a situation where rice paddies tend to be no longer properly managed.
“I know that rice grows (best) while hearing human footsteps,” Someya said. “Visits (to rice paddies) are indispensable.”
The accumulation of huge volumes of data, and the use of artificial intelligence to analyze and learn, plus the introduction of farming robots in combination with the wisdom of farmers like Someya should prove profitable for all.