The technical gizmos at the Farm of the Future

Weeding robots, drones, decision-support software… The Farm of the Future is home to all sorts of technical gizmos. Bram Veldhuisen, researcher in precision agriculture and robotics at Wageningen University & Research, explains how they work and why they’re being used.

Weeding robot

“The Farm of the Future is testing the skills of a weeding robot. The front of the robot has a camera fitted to it. It uses artificial intelligence to distinguish between crops and weeds. The robot uses GPS to find the correct route through the field. Its arm has been programmed to remove the weeds.”

“We sowed the crops and the weeds. We also go through the field with a special camera-buggy every week to capture images of all the plants. The manufacterer of the weed robot uses those images to make the artificial intelligence even smarter. And he comes to us to perform field tests for the latest updates to his robot.”

“Coming year we may be testing a camera detection system equipped with a spray unit where the nozzles are fitted very closely together. The detection system means only the weeds get sprayed, rather than the whole field. This can reduce the use of chemicals by 99%.”


“You’ll see a drone hovering over the Farm of the Future at least once a month or so. We use drones to take images that show the entire Fieldlab. You can’t do that on foot in the field. These images tell us if we need to intervene anywhere. For example, drone images have previously shown that crops weren’t coming up evenly everywhere. This was because last year the land had been used for a number of different trials of different crops.”

“And in August we had 150 mm of rain. The drone images at the Agroecology & Technology Field Lab showed us where the cabbages had been damaged. It was clearer than it would have been with the naked eye. As soon as the rain stopped we dug extra ditches to direct the water to the canal more quickly.”


“With strip cultivation you need to use narrower machinery. That means more labour. We want to avoid that by having robots take over some of the work from us. Our autonomous robot tractor, the Robboti, can perform tasks such as sowing and ploughing. However, a precise route plan needs to be made in advance to ensure that the Robotti operates in the right location. This is done from a computer. In the field, the Robotti uses GPS so it always knows exactly where it is and where it’s heading. The camera detection system with the sprayer, mentioned above, can also be fitted onto the Robotti. This gives us an autonomous spraying system that just targets little weeds very precisely.”

Decision support software

“We grow potato varieties with the highest possible resistance to potato blight, or Phytophthora. Alongside this, we have decision support software to tell us when the field needs preventive spraying. The software uses a weather model. This weather model calculates down to 100 metres how the weather might have an impact on the emergence of potato blight. We only need to input when they were last sprayed. This reduces the amount of spraying we have to do. Last season, we sprayed twice rather than 10 times.”

Growth model

“A software growth model gives a prognosis for the growth and yields of the potato crop. The model takes weather conditions into account along with other factors such as water levels in the soil, and nitrogen levels. We take soil samples to measure the nitrogen level and enter that data at the start of the season. The growth model makes it easier for us to see if crops aren’t getting enough water or nitrogen. Having that knowledge enables us to decide whether we need to increase irrigation or perhaps apply fertiliser. Satellite and drone images help us to determine exactly how much fertiliser to apply to a specific part of the site. That means we can make sure each area gets just enough, but not too much.”

“We hope that over the next few years more businesses will come to us to test and demonstrate technological innovations that will contribute to the objectives of the Farm of the Future. We will support them in that. And I also hope that farmers will be able to visit again to see how those technologies can be put into practice.”