The AAutonom project

The AAutonom project

Today, agriculture is undergoing both agro-ecological and digital transitions, and there would be real added value, as yet little explored, in coupling them to put digital technology to work for agro-ecology, i.e. from the plot to the redesign of food systems. This coupling of innovation is at the heart of #DigitAg, the Convergence Agriculture Numérique Institute.

Resulting from a partnership between #DigitAg, the Défi-Clé régional Robotique and MUSE, the AAutonoM project (Agroécologie Autonome en Maraichage: Co-conception de nouveaux systèmes de production maraichers autonomes couplantant des innovations agro-écologiques et numériques) aims to illustrate this coupling in a market garden system: the aim is to co-design and demonstrate (POC for Proof of Concept) a disruptive robotized assistance system and a new market-garden cultivation system, by imposing several strong constraints that will make the innovation original: low cost, simplicity and repairability of the equipment. The technology will have to be compatible with market-gardening systems of various sizes and types, from small family structures to systems developed over several hectares.

There is a strong need to equip market gardeners - whatever their production structure - with technologies to reduce the time and drudgery of tasks, and to enable new cultivation practices (crop mixing, electric weeding) that are more beneficial from an agroecological point of view.

Conception AAutonom
Conception AAutonom © #DigitAg

The AAutonoM project aims to provide a Proof of Concept (POC) for the use of Parallel Cable Robots (PCRs) to assist market gardeners in achieving this objective. The POC will focus on the design and feasibility testing of a low-cost RPC, in particular research into precision positioning of the end effector, techno-economic feasibility, co-design of new cropping systems and new on-board tools (e.g. camera, irrigation, crate carrying). The RPC responds to a problem faced by market gardeners, namely the burden caused by the number of manual interventions. This is illustrated by the interest shown by organic farming (AB) in small mobile weeding robots. For small surfaces (such as in market gardening), RPCs have advantages over mobile robots (simplicity, cost, energy consumption, safety).

The POC will have to validate the possibility of designing a low-cost RPC that can carry out several tasks, in total autonomy or in collaboration with the market gardener, thanks to interchangeable tools on the mobile end-effector. In addition to reducing drudgery and production costs, the advantage of a precise RPC that can operate 24 hours a day is that it can be used to devise new, more agro-ecological market-gardening systems (species mixes, electric weeding, etc.), and thus to develop agro-ecological or AB market-gardening areas.
The POC will be implemented at INRAE's Lavalette site, on a plot managed by UMR G-eau.

Expected impact on employment: the aim is for the robot to enable the market gardener to rethink the design of his plot of land and his technical itineraries, to redeploy his work towards more profitable tasks (direct sales), to reduce costs (particularly in organic farming, to supply canteens) and to encourage conversion to organic farming. The aim is also to reduce the arduousness of the work, making the job of market gardener more attractive and livable. Today, 40% of jobs in the sector are seasonal. This category of jobs could be affected by the robot.

Expected impact on food systems: producing vegetables at lower cost and following the precepts of agroecology is essential to the territorialized food projects (PAT) that local authorities are seeking to set up to supply their collective catering, and more broadly, their constituents.  La métropole de Montpellier (3M) is strongly positioned in this area. This project will be proposed to Med Vallée to become an emblematic project and could contribute to the Terracoopa metropolitan project.

If the POC is positive, the next steps will be to develop (i) the technology (design and production of on-board tools), (ii) the agronomic, organizational, economic and political aspects, in conjunction with MedVallée, so that the robot can be deployed as part of the regional food project promoted by the 3M Metropolis. Such a robot also opens up new avenues of research in multi-hyperspectral image analysis (early detection of disease), precision irrigation, electric weeding and, more broadly, agro-ecology...
The expected spin-offs are enormous: a new high-low tech robotics sector, agronomic innovation in agro-ecological market gardening, development of AB market gardening areas, attractiveness of agriculture, contribution to redesigning local food systems with local authorities.

In conclusion, AAutonom's ambition is to contribute to self-sufficiency on several dimensions: robot autonomy (day and night work), farmer autonomy (because the robot is high-low tech and low-cost), energy autonomy (RPCs are very frugal, so we'll be studying energy consumption to consider coupling with photovoltaic panels), food autonomy (possibility of reterritorializing vegetable production in France to feed cities).

#DigitAg © Christophe Maitre

AAutonoM involves a multi-disciplinary consortium in robotics (LIRMM, UM), agri-equipment (UMR ITAP, UMR G-EAU INRAE), systems agronomy and ergonomics (UMR AbSyS, L'Institut Agro and UMR G-EAU), all recognized partners in their fields.

Modification date: 08 February 2024 | Publication date: 16 January 2024 | By: GL