In the next few years, 5G will unleash a revolution in arable farming. ‘Swarms’ of self-learning robots will soon be clearing many hectares of the weeds growing between carrots, onions, chicory and spinach, under the supervision of a 'robot shepherd' (a new profession). This will all be increasingly fast, accurate, and, above all, sustainable.

That future already exists at Martijn Lukaart’s Odd.Bot: ‘5G mobile network technology allows robots to get to work on the land faster.’ Odd.Bot has successfully launched a self-learning robot fitted with a camera and 5G technology that rapidly detects weeds and removes them from between the crops. Read on to find out how this technology could revolutionise arable farming.

Sustainable alternative
Flevoland tech startup Odd.Bot has successfully launched a self-learning robot fitted with a camera and 5G technology that rapidly detects weeds and removes them from between crops. It is a sustainable alternative to both chemical pesticides and manual weed control.

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Weed Whacker
The Weed Whacker can already independently detect weeds, based on camera images and its internal AI. When a weed is detected, a control signal is activated. The smallest weeds are then pushed back into the soil, and larger ones are pulled or dug out. The current model can remove 60% of the weeds, well above the 50% that arable farmers say is already very acceptable. The startup is now working with the 5G Hub on a new prototype, with which an operator will be able to monitor and control the robot in real-time remotely.

No more pesticides
The Weed Whacker won the 5G Hub Innovation Challenge in July 2021. It is designed for use in open field vegetable cultivation, with crops such as carrots, seed onions, chicory, and spinach. This innovation is a promising alternative to manual weed removal in organic farming. Conventional arable farming will also benefit from the 5G weeding robot according to Lukaart, who says, ‘Chemical pesticides damage soil life and biodiversity, which is why the European Commission is planning to ban the use of more than half of these products by 1 January 2026. Manual weed removal isn’t a viable alternative, because of the high costs and lack of personnel. For this reason, many conventional arable farmers have already approached me about the Weed Whacker.’

Cheaper than manual
The current weed robot can weed 8,000 m2 a day, four times more than a person can manually remove in a working day. The robot still has the potential to be even faster and better, because while 60% weed removal is already more than acceptable at the moment, the developers expect to achieve 80% eventually. The Weed Whacker will also have to be cheaper to use than the 2,500 euros per hectare per growing season that manual weed removal in organic arable farming currently costs.

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5G Hub Support
Lukaart is receiving support from the 5G Hub and consultancy firm Strict in the further development of this innovation. The 5G Hub is the test environment in which VodafoneZiggo, Ericsson, Brainport Development and Hightech Campus support entrepreneurs to develop socially relevant innovations in which 5G mobile network technology plays a key role.

Keeping a remote eye on the land
‘The following step we want to take with the 5G Hub is to have a human operator observe the land on a screen from the robot’s perspective, and watch what the robot intends to remove. If the robot misses something, the operator can intervene remotely, which will also improve the algorithm. In other words, we want to use machine learning to integrate arable farmers’ and weeders’ knowledge of weeds and weed removal into that robot. The support from the 5G Hub is an important factor in this.’

From 5G to affordable robots
The 5G Hub is also investigating the extent to which the robot can do its work more lightly, efficiently and cheaply if the calculations required for this application are carried out remotely, either in whole or in part. Lukaart: ‘The computing power of the robot can be reduced if the computing power required for weed detection is moved to 'the edge': a nearby server in the Vodafone network. The robot then only needs to send camera images via a 5G mobile connection, and will receive images with squares and names from the mobile network in return, so that it knows exactly which types of weeds to remove and their positions.’

Swarm robotics
According to Lukaart, the scalability of the weeding robot is not associated with increasingly large and heavy robots, but in exploiting several systems alongside each other which work the land as a swarm. ‘We’re working towards a situation in which one “robot herder” watches from a distance, while 10 robots move across a field.’ Ultimately, those robots can even use each other's intelligence, further increasing their success in detecting weeds. It reduces the risk that they mistakenly identify crop plants as weeds and remove them.’

More human/machine interaction
Lukaart envisions a future with more and more interaction between humans and machines, with people observing from a distance. ‘The law at the moment still requires the robot operator to be within physical sight of the working robot. In time, this requirement will disappear, because 5G mobile network technology allows an operator to control a robot remotely as if they were personally inside it.’

Thousands of weed robots by 2030
The Flevoland tech entrepreneur is certain that the Weed Whacker from Odd.Bot will be a roaring success: ‘In 5 years' time, I expect there will be about 500 robots which customers will use in their fields through a Robot-as-a-Service contract. Things will move quickly after 2026, when chemical weed control will be largely banned. By 2030, I expect thousands of our robots to be working in swarms in the fields.’

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Pictures: InFlevoland/Maarten Feenstra