Killer robots: Czechs working on AI prototype to wipe out pests with less insecticide

Dalibor Húska

Scientists at Mendel University in Brno have developed a prototype robot that identifies insects harmful to agricultural crops and spays just enough of the right chemical to kill them. Already a “greener” solution than the blanket spraying of insecticides, it is learning to identify infestations before they fully erupt.

Researchers at Mendel University have been growing rows of tomatoes and peppers in large cloth boxes since early spring, in a greenhouse with automatic temperature and humidity controls for achieving optimum growth.

It did not take long for a variety of hungry insects to appear. Libor Lenža, a member of a research team comprised of specialists from the agriculture, biochemistry and technological faculties, says through artificial intelligence, the prototype robot is steadily improving its ability to recognize a variety of plants and pests.

“We had to have a huge database of images with both the plants and pests in different states of development. Our students then had to manually find the individual insects in the images, mark them, describe whether they were adults, larvae or eggs. And based on that, artificial intelligence can learn to recognize what is what.”

The prototype robot, being developed in collaboration with other European specialists, can now recognize three insects that feed on the two plants in their greenhouse – tomatoes and peppers.

The machine, which resembles a metre-long wheelchair, has a moveable arm with a camera jutting out of its torso, and insecticide spray containers on its back.

GreenPatrol project achieves all its objectives

It is programmed to move around the greenhouse stopping at each box of plants for a thorough inspection at regular intervals, and with each round adds to its database of knowledge, says Libor Lenža, a biochemist with a computer science background.

“The robot knows what kind of pest it is, how intensely it is present on a given plant, or in a given row, and applies the appropriate amount and type of product accordingly. This greatly reduces the amount of chemicals used in agriculture.”

The prototype robot reduces the amount of insecticide needed used to kill pests, says fellow biochemist Olga Kryštofová, also because it works around the clock, and so can detect an infestation in the greenhouse before it fully erupts.

“The robot is able, in fact, by working 24 hours a day, to take up a much larger percentage of the greenhouse than a person. That is quite important because it catches the infection much earlier than humans.”

The prototype robot, which navigates using the Galileo satellite system, could in future transfer information to other machines and cover even more ground, more thoroughly, say Mendel University team member Dalibor Húska, who works on the research and development aspect.

“Such a network or ‘swarm’ of robots could communicate not only with each other but also with the farmers. So, if an infestation is already occurring, appropriate measures can be taken as soon as possible.”

The prototype agricultural robot has been widely tested on a farm in Spain. The final version should be commercially available to farmers in the Czech Republic and beyond in a couple of years.