With his master thesis on the design and modelling of a modular robotic system to improve weed management, Rembrandt Perneel has won the Agoria Public Award 2020.

Small organic farms are not interested in heavy and expensive machines, growing crops is therefore often tantamount to manual labor. That is why Rembrandt Perneel developed a light and affordable robot that helps them with weed control. With this master’s thesis he won the Agoria Public Award 2020 with almost half of the votes.

The introduction of robotics in agriculture may be a radical step away from the current tendencies in farming of increasingly large machines designed to improve productivity. Heavy machinery has a high cost, a greater complexity and causes serious subsoil compaction issues. But unlike large, industrial monoculture farms, small-scale organic farming businesses, specifically within Community-supported Agriculture (CSA), also welcome robotic innovations since many different crops are grown and more manual labour is required to execute tasks such as weed control. The field of agricultural robotics acknowledges these challenges and aims to develop robots that operate with more efficiency, effectiveness and at less cost than traditional farm machinery and labour. This thesis presents the design process and the prototyping of a modular robotic system to improve weed management in raised bed organic farming. This is to be achieved by the collaboration of multiple autonomous modules in a so-called ‘swarm concept’, rather than making use of one single, large machine. This configuration may positively impact energy consumption, labour and crop management efficiency.

The outcome of this effort is a lightweight robotic vehicle with a configurable implement unit. The current configuration is capable of undertaking weed mitigation tasks at seedling stage. The realised platform has a four-wheel configuration, driving through the use of two differential steering wheels and two passive caster wheels. Two 200 W electric motors powered by a lithium-ion manganese oxide battery enable locomotion.The outcome of this project is achieved by using aspects of the engineering field and industrial design practices together according to a user-centred design model, where human factors are interwoven with technical problem-solving thinking.