The first driverless cultivator rolled 200 feet down a row of tomatoes at the University of California, Davis, test fields this summer, uprooting weeds with wheels of fingers as it traveled, turned around at a spot prescribed by the operator, and made the return trip, weeding the next row over.
This machine, called Dino, is part of a family of autonomous cultivators designed by the French engineering firm Naio Technologies to save labor in vegetable row crop fields and grape vineyards.
Watch Dino in action at UC Davis Weed Day 2019 (video Ann Filmer/UC Davis)
“We have a small machine that can do an acre a day, Dino which can do around 10 acres a day, and another for vineyards,” said Simon Belin, U.S. technical vegetable expert for Naio Technologies.
Belin is based in Salinas until the summer of 2020, because the manufacturer sees the Salad Bowl as Dino’s new El Dorado.
“Dino crossed the Atlantic to reach the lands of California and conquer the lettuce fields,” according to the Naio internet site. “In the face of an increasingly stringent regulation on both environmental and social levels, the advent of robots in ranches of the United States represents a real opportunity for the lettuce producers.”
He is also working with growers in the Santa Maria area, took Dino out for a test drive at the 63rd annual Weed Day on the UC Davis campus this summer, and demonstrated the machine again at an ag technology field day in Los Banos.
Belin said the auto-piloted cultivator gives vegetable crop growers an answer for employee shortages, helps them reduce or even eliminate the need for chemical weed killers, and offers a climate-smart alternative.
“It’s clean energy; all of our robots are powered by electricity, and the battery can go seven or eight hours,” Belin said. Engineers in France are working on speeding up the recharge process.
The real test, however, will be whether the machine can be fine-tuned to the point that the savings in hand weeding labor justify the approximately $220,000 Dino price tag.
Steve Fennimore working on automated cultivators
“With all these machines, they have to significantly impact the hand weeding time; they are still working on this one in France to be able to get within the row,” said Steve Fennimore, UC Cooperative Extension weed specialist, and UC Davis Plant Sciences faculty member who is based in Salinas, and an expert on mechanical alternatives for weed control in vegetables. “I work with lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and the other cool season crops on the coast. While we would like nothing more than to be working with herbicides, there aren’t very many new ones available.”
Fennimore is working with Belin on testing Dino in California crops.
According to the UC Davis 2019 Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Romaine Hearts in the Central Coast Region, hand weeding labor is a $300 an acre expense, while the 2017 cost studies for iceberg lettuce or broccoli in the region estimated around $150 an acre in hand weeding expenses.
One fly in the ointment when considering autonomous robot cultivators to bring down these expenses, however, could be California regulations that discourage the use of driverless machines.
“California regulates autonomous vehicles differently than the other 49 states,” Fennimore said. “We are the only state to require a driver to be within 10 feet. I invited Cal-OSHA to be here today, but they didn’t show.”
Belin said the machine has numerous safeguards against the possibility of a collision that could injure someone.
“You program in where you want it to go,” he said, demonstrating by entering the commands into the module that sent Dino rumbling a couple hundred feet down a row of tomatoes, turning around, and returning down the adjacent row, weeding the whole way.
The GPS control is the first safety line of defense, but there is also an emergency remote control that can stop the tractor from a distance up to 200 feet, a laser that detects when someone is too close and stops the vehicle, and bumpers to soften any collisions.
“When it sees me, it just stops,” Belin said.
Naio’s first driverless electric cultivator was Oz, designed for relatively small vegetable farms, with the first prototype introduced in 2013, later developed to do as much weeding in four hours as a person can do in two days.
Then came Ted, a vineyard cultivator that is already at work in Chateu Les Vergnes in southern France as well as numerous research sites.
Detailed descriptions of all three machines in this line of autonomous cultivators, and some video of them in action, are available on the Naio Technologies internet site (www.naio-technologies.com/en/agricultural-equipment/).
These rigs are already used in France, especially by organic growers, and trials in the U.S. show promising effectiveness on vegetable weeds, Belin said.
“In sandy loam soil conditions, it gets up to 95 percent of the weeds,” Belin said. “We are adaptable enough to go from 60-inch to 84-inch beds.”
Recent UC Davis News on Weed Management
- Steve Fennimore receives Fulbright Scholar Award to work in Uruguay on weed management in organic vegetable production. October 2019.
- Automated weeders are attracting more interest: Steve Fennimore explains. September 2019.
- Release of weevil for biological control of yellow starthistle. September 2019.
- Broomrape eradication is high priority for UC researchers. August 2019.
- Weed management in specialty crop production: VIDEO. July 2019.
- Weed Day 2018. July 2018.
- Weed Research and Information Center. Website.