The IBEX project, a consortium of SMEs who design and build advanced agricultural robotics, have announced the start of fully autonomous trials of their extreme mobility agricultural robot, which is able to traverse steep, difficult sheep and dairy farm terrain in order to identify and destroy weeds.
Co-funded by Innovate UK, the IBEX robot will use its precision arm to be as accurate as human sprayers when targeting weeds. Tasked with identifying and destroying encroaching weeds on remote hillsides that are uneconomical to spray manually or too dangerous to drive on with a tractor or quad bike, the IBEX autonomous platform is capable of safely traversing slopes up to 45 degrees through mud and thick vegetation, including bracken.
The robot aims to reduce fuel costs and labour usage for farmers while massively reducing the environmental impact caused by bulk herbicide spraying. The UK currently has approximately 41,000 sheep and 17,000 dairy farms, averaging 140 acres per farm. Each requires around £1000 per year to spray manually at £8/hour, a cost which is increasing rapidly, with the introduction of the new living wage set to increase this further.
"IBEX is the first agricultural robot designed to tackle extreme agricultural environments such as the Yorkshire hill farms." said Dr Charles Fox, project manager of IBEX at Hunshelf Hall Farm. "Taking the concept beyond university labs and overcoming extreme terrain mobility limitations, we designed and built IBEX to military standards, to go where other vehicles can't operate and to tackle a real world problem affecting many farmers around the UK. We have a very interested and active user group of local farmers and we're continually using their advice.”
The IBEX autonomous system uses tracks to reduce ground pressure, increasing the range of terrain it can traverse while reducing any damage it may cause with its treads. Onboard sensors provide attitude information to ensure stable operation over all terrain.
It uses a combination of sensors and Bayesian machine learning software to be fully aware of its surroundings and is designed for certified safe operation. It is capable of independent navigation, covering a pre-set user targeted area by ‘swathing’ or a more intelligent optimisation of routes using its own data. A video and data link is always active, allowing a supervisor to intervene if required or if the control systems determine that user input is necessary.
The system is also capable of carrying alternative heavy payloads and pulling agricultural implements to perform further farm tasks and can operate for up to a day away from its operating base. It is expected that the cost of IBEX will be about the same as an ATV, so that it is affordable to farmers, including those in developing countries, with inexpensive operation and readily available spares and consumables.
IBEX said: “Autonomous robotics represent a real opportunity to bring about valuable change in the farming industry. There are large swathes of inaccessible land in poor economic areas that, if brought under control, could be made useful for grazing or even arable farming. Autonomous robots could one day tend to crops on a per-plant basis, more like human horticulturists than current bulk farming methods, which can waste up to 40% of crops.”
IBEX is due to complete user and autonomous trials later this year and is working with the University of Leeds on ideas for follow-on projects, using the robots in additional agricultural tasks.
IBEX is a consortium of SMEs cofounded by the AgriTech Catalyst of the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, on behalf of DEFRA, as a feasibility study. IBEX consists of Hunshelf Hall Farm, G32 Technologies Ltd and Digital Concepts Engineering Ltd. The consortium's users and advisors include current and former staff from the South Yorkshire Grassland Society, Google, United Nations, Cambridge University, and Harvard Business School.