An apple orchard in Takayama, Japan recently used a robot to pollinate trees – pointing the way forward for the country’s agricultural industry that is currently facing labour shortage and the decline of bees.
The farm deployed a lightweight, unmanned ground vehicle produced by XAG, which has been helping the agricultural sector in various countries, such as Australia to modernise their practices by using drones to fertilise vast swathes of land.
The farm robot named XAG R150 was launched in Japan last month after a nationwide trial, including one conducted last April at Village Takayama, Nagano Prefecture of Japan, and watched by experts from Japan Agricultural Cooperatives.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries of Japan formulated the Basic Plan for Food, Agriculture, and Rural Areas in 2020 to achieve smart agriculture for the next 10 years. The government has charted the roadmap of adopting digital technologies, such as robots and artificial intelligence, to drive new growth in its agricultural economy.
According to the estimate of the Japanese government, the number of bee swarms in Japan has seen a 40% reduction over the past nine years. The absence of important insect pollinators could cast a massive fruit yield reduction and cause fatal blow on the annual revenue of fruit farmers.
The idea of applying ground robots for fruit tree pollination was a bold attempt to cope with the pollination crisis.
At the apple orchard in Takayama where the trial was conducted, the operator poured a special mixed solution of pollen into the liquid tank of XAG R150, which then started to move autonomously and spray liquid pollen on the Sun Fuji apples following the pre-settled route.
As an all-electric, mini-scale autonomous farm robot, the R150 travelled nimbly between three rows of Sun Fuji apples, spraying atomised pollen solution uniformly on every tree from the bottom up. From a distance, the operator could adjust the spray angle and spread width simply through the smartphone app.
Saving on manual labour
Makoto Arai, a fruit grower who lives in Village Takayama, were one of the guests invited to witness the first appearance of XAG R150 in the demonstration of apple pollination. Earlier this March, he just participated another pre-sale roadshow in Kanagawa Prefecture and was impressed by the performance of this ground vehicle on spraying cabbage fields for pest control.
"I knew my hunch of autonomous robot was right. I felt that I could anticipate a reduction in labour cost if I were to adopt one of these smart helpers. Instead of investing my time into manual labour, I could focus on sales, branding and business expansion of my fruit farm in the future," he said.
Sun Fuji is a dwarfed variety of apples that fruit farmers plant densely to save space in one single row. In busy season, due to the short window of pollination, one farmer has to work two hours non-stop to manually pollinate one row of Sun Fuji, a task that becomes more difficult as the trees grow taller.
To make sure every blossom from the top of the trees gets successfully pollinated, workers often needed to use ladders to climb up and down for artificial pollination. This traditional method was not only tiring, tedious, and time-consuming, but also pose a safety risk to workers who might suffer a fall.
The trial at the Takayama farm showed that an XAG R150 could pollinate one row of apple trees within 10 minutes, 12 times more efficient than that of hand spray. Through high-speed airflow, the pollen was spread precisely and attached on every corner needed to be cared for, including the blossoms that grew on top of the trees.
The use of water and pollen were also greatly reduced because of the high precision sprays. This mean that a large-scale orchard can be sprayed within a short period of time, and farm owners can forget about the worries of not able to hire sufficient workers.
Robots and young farmers as new blood
XAG, the robotics and AI company, set up an oversea subsidiary in Japan in 2016 – deploying its agricultural drones to over 28 cities and served more than 10 species of crop varieties. The aim is to help aging Japanese farmers embrace advanced technologies, while bringing young people back to village to start business in agriculture.
Since 2019, the Japanese government has decided to raise its national export goal of agricultural, forestry and fisheries products and food to US$19.28 billion dollars in the year 2025 and US$48.21 billion dollars in 2035. These target numbers set a higher demand to speed up the transformation of Japan's agricultural production system.
However, the decreasing agricultural workforce and loss of pollinators have become two major challenges facing the production of fruits in Japan's aging society. The number of births in Japan has marked the lowest level on record, while the average age of farmers has reached over 60 without young successors. This reveals a huge untapped space for drones and robots as fresh blood to replenish.
This summer, XAG agricultural drones will be joined by the ground robots to bring higher level of automation on food production. And Japanese farmers would be further empowered to become the real managers of their own farms.