Scientists Develop a Robot to Maintain Plants Grown Under Solar Panels
A team of scientists have developed a robot, called SynRobo, to help care for a variety of plants growing beneath solar panels. The robot is designed to sow, prune and harvest crops, even in densely planted areas without interfering with nearby plants.
The robot is designed to work with a Synecoculture system, which is a new type of agriculture by Masatoshi Funabashi, a senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. (Sony CSL). According to Sony CSL, Synecoculture blends human and artificial intelligence to grow a high-density yet varied group of crops to boost biodiversity and minimize land impacts while producing more food.
But growing so many different types of crops, especially in high-density, requires more time and precision to care for each type of plant without disrupting other nearby plants with different needs.
Consequently, a team of scientists led by Takuya Otani, an assistant professor at Waseda University in Tokyo, in collaboration with Sustainergy Company and Sony CSL, developed a robot made specifically to work within a Synecoculture system.
The robot can complete various tasks, unlike other agricultural robots that are often limited to performing only one task. The design allows the robot to maneuver and perform its tasks carefully, so as not to disturb the environment or other plants.
“It has a four-wheel mechanism that enables movement on uneven land and a robotic arm that expands and contracts to help overcome obstacles. The robot can move on slopes and avoid small steps,” Otani explained in a statement.
SynRobo has a 360° camera to help it navigate around the farming area, and tools like anchors and pruning scissors help it complete separate tasks. But if it needs assistance, SynRobo can also be controlled by humans.
In addition to the robot, which the scientists shared in a recently published study for the journal Agriculture, the team developed innovative methods for more efficient seeding. They coated different seed types in soil until the seeds were the same size, so the robot could sow different plant seeds at the same time without having to adjust to different shapes or sizes.
The researchers hope that developing an efficient robot will promote Synecoculture and renewable energy, since this method of agriculture can work well in underutilized areas, like beneath solar panels on solar farms. But they also explained that with some minor adjustments, SynRobo can work in conventional agricultural applications as well.
“It can be widely used in general agriculture as well as Synecoculture — only the tools need to be changed when working with different plants,” Otani said. “This robot will contribute to improving the yield per unit area and increase farming efficiency.”
According to Sony CSL, Synecoculture testing in Japan and sub-Saharan Africa have been successful. Otani also shared that Sustainergy Company plans to commercialize SynRobo in various underutilized and desertified locations, including in Japan and Kenya.
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