Synecoculture, a new farming method, involves growing mixed plant species together in high density. However, it requires complex operation since varying species with different growing seasons and growing speeds are planted on the same land. To address this need, researchers have developed a robot that can sow, prune, and harvest plants in dense vegetation grown. Its small, flexible body will help large-scale Synecoculture. This is an important step towards achieving sustainable farming and carbon neutrality.
Synecoculture is a new agricultural method advocated by Dr. Masatoshi Funabashi, senior researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc. (Sony CSL), in which various kinds of plants are mixed and grown in high density, establishing rich biodiversity while benefiting from the self-organizing ability of the ecosystem. However, such dense vegetation requires frequent upkeep—seeds need to be sown, weeds need to be pruned, and crops need to be harvested. Synecoculture thus requires a high level of ecological literacy and complex decision-making. And while the operational issues present with Synecoculture can be addressed by using an agricultural robot, most existing robots can only automate one of the above three tasks in a simple farmland environment, thus falling short of the literacy and decision-making skills required of them to perform Synecoculture. Moreover, the robots may make unnecessary contact with the plants and damage them, affecting their growth and the harvest.
With the rising awareness of environmental issues, such a gap between the performance of humans versus that of conventional robots has spurred innovation to improve the latter.
A group of researchers led by Takuya Otani, an Assistant Professor at Waseda University, in collaboration with Sustainergy Company and Sony CSL, have designed a new robot that can perform Synecoculture effectively. The robot is called SynRobo, with “syn” conveying the meaning of “together with” humans. It manages a variety of mixed plants grown in the shade of solar panels, an otherwise unutilized space. An article describing their research was published in Volume 13, Issue 1 of Agriculture, on 21 December 2022. This article has been co-authored by Professor Atsuo Takanishi, also from Waseda University, other researchers of Sony CSL, and students from Waseda University.
Otani briefly explains the novel robot’s design. “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. The system also utilizes a 360o camera to recognize and maneuver its surroundings. In addition, it is loaded with various farming tools—anchors (for punching holes), pruning scissors, and harvesting setups. The robot adjusts its position using the robotic arm and an orthogonal axes table that can move horizontally.”
Besides these inherent features, the researchers also invented techniques for efficient seeding. They coated seeds from different plants with soil to make equally-sized balls. These made their shape and size consistent, so that the robot could easily sow seeds from multiple plants. Furthermore, an easy-to-use, human-controlled maneuvering system was developed to facilitate the robot’s functionality. The system helps it operate tools, implement automatic sowing, and switch tasks.
The new robot could successfully sow, prune, and harvest in dense vegetation, making minimal contact with the environment during the tasks because of its small and flexible body. In addition, the new maneuvering system enabled the robot to avoid obstacles 50% better while reducing its operating time by 49%, compared to a simple controller.
“This research has developed an agricultural robot that works in environments where multiple species of plants grow in dense mixtures,” Otani tells us. “It can be widely used in general agriculture as well as Synecoculture—only the tools need to be changed when working with different plants. This robot will contribute to improving the yield per unit area and increase farming efficiency. Moreover, its agricultural operation data will help automate the maneuvering system. As a result, robots could assist agriculture in a plethora of environments. In fact, Sustainergy Company is currently preparing to commercialize this innovation in abandoned fields in Japan and desertified areas in Kenya, among other places.”
Such advancements will promote Synecoculture farming, with the combination of renewable energy, and help solve various pressing problems, including climate change and the energy crisis. The present research is a crucial step toward achieving sustainable agriculture and carbon neutrality. Here’s hoping for a smart and skillful robot that efficiently supports large-scale Synecoculture!
Authors: Takuya Otani1, Akira Itoh2, Hideki Mizukami2, Masatsugu Murakami2, Shunya Yoshida2, Kota Terae2, Taiga Tanaka2, Koki Masaya2, Shuntaro Aotake2,3, Masatoshi Funabashi3, and Atsuo Takanishi2
Title of original paper: Agricultural Robot under Solar Panels for Sowing, Pruning, and Harvesting in a Synecoculture Environment
1Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering, Waseda University
2Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University
3Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc., Tokyo
About Professor Takuya Otani from Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering
Takuya Otani is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering. He received his Ph.D. degree from Waseda University in 2016. He is a member of the Virtual Reality Society of Japan, Japanese Council of IFToMM, Japan Society of Mechanical Engineers, Robotics Society of Japan, and IEEE. He received the Waseda e-Teaching Good Practice Award in 2021. His research interests include robotics and intelligent system, intelligent robotics, haptics, humanoid robotics, and mechanics and mechatronics. His recent work involves developing efficient robots for Synecoculture agriculture.
About Waseda University
Located in the heart of Tokyo, Waseda University is a leading private research university that has long been dedicated to academic excellence, innovative research, and civic engagement at both the local and global levels since 1882. The University has produced many changemakers in its history, including nine prime ministers and many leaders in business, science and technology, literature, sports, and film. Waseda has strong collaborations with overseas research institutions and is committed to advancing cutting-edge research and developing leaders who can contribute to the resolution of complex, global social issues. The University has set a target of achieving a zero-carbon campus by 2032, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015.
To learn more about Waseda University, visit https://www.waseda.jp/top/en
Synecoculture is a method of farming that produces useful plants while making multifaceted use of the self-organizing ability of the earth’s ecosystem. Advocated by Dr. Masatoshi Funabashi of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc., it is characterized by a comprehensive ecosystem utilization method that considers not only food production but also the impacts on the environment and health.
*”Synecoculture” is a registered trademark or a trademark of Sony Group Corporation.
About Sustainergy Company
Sustainergy Company, a Tokyo-based renewable-energy startup, its management philosophy is “making the world sustainable through energy”, has been developing and operating solar power generation projects in Japan, including large-scale farm-based solar power generation (Agrivoltaics). The company noticed that the space under the solar panels of many solar power plants is underutilized and thought that if Sony CSL’s Synecoculture farming method could be applied to the semi-shaded area under the solar panels, the degraded soil could be restored, and the land could be turned into greenery and farmland, thereby enabling both food production and renewable energy production on the same land. Sustainergy Company is preparing to commercialize this project in abandoned farmlands in Japan, desertified areas in Kenya, and other countries. To learn more about Sustainergy Company, visit https://sustainergy.co.jp/.