Robot automates hard-to-fill jobs in agriculture and turf

The RomeIO robot is being tested in many uses in agriculture where labour is scarce

RoamIO working in a vineyard where it cuts grass, watches and counts grapes and fertilizes.
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A local start-up has developed a compact, rugged autonomous robot that can automate a wide range of agricultural tasks, like soil sensing, applying inputs, and harvest yield prediction for grapes.

Korechi Innovations’ RoamIO features an expandable platform that is compatible with different functional attachments — similar to the DOT technology from western Canada —has a battery life of up to eight hours and can tow up to 2.2 tonnes, including over rough terrain.

“RoamIO is designed for commercial not home use, jobs that it is hard to find people for,” says Korechi’s founder and CEO Sougata Pahari. “These are jobs like fertilizer or seed spreading, for example.”

Why it matters: Many Canadian businesses, especially in agriculture, have a hard time finding workers and struggle with rising labour costs. According to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, Canadian farm sales losses from unfilled jobs reached $2.9 billion in 2019.

Pahari had his start in Hamilton’s McMaster Innovation Park with a robot to paint lines on outdoor sports fields, but quickly realized that market was fairly limited. RoamIO is ideal for turf maintenance jobs, though, like mowing, precision application of seed and fertilizer — and the thankless job of golf ball pick-up at driving ranges.

As the system has developed, Pahari and his team have expanded into additional agricultural applications.

“The future is all about precision and better use of resources — we need judicious uses of resources,” he says. “We are trying to keep aging farmers in business longer by automating tasks, but also make the industry attractive to young people as a career.”

Jim Clark and Sougata Pahari at Spark Centre in Durham Region. photo: Lilian Schaer

Data collection for the SoilOptix soil sensing system is one application where RoamIO can autonomously move across even fields with heavy corn stubble. According to SoilOptix founder and CEO Paul Raymer, the unit is an ideal fit for how agriculture can reduce its dependence on human workers in the field.

“What we foresee is the swarm where maybe one field robot manager is managing two or three vehicles out of a single tablet,” he says. “When we incorporate robotics into the field, it adds one more level of control — this is the new frontier that is quickly starting to appear more and more.”

Another application is in grape production, where Korechi has been partnering with Niagara College and Cave Spring Cellars. RoamIO, equipped with cameras, travels through the vineyard daily, counting grapes and matching that with precise GPS data to make yield predictions. It can also support disease and pest scouting; a sprayer attachment is in development.

“We’re excited for the potential of this product,” says Cave Spring oenologist and viticulturalist Gabriel Demarco of the system that also mows between the rows as it travels the vineyard. “And the carbon footprint reduction is quite large as we are using far less fuel than a tractor and it lessens soil compaction.”

Korechi was previously part of Hamilton’s The Forge business incubator and after Pahari’s family relocated to Oshawa, it is now part of Durham Region’s Spark Centre business incubator. The company has also received support from agriculture accelerator Bioenterprise.

Korechi now is working with the Artificial Intelligence hub at Durham College on machine learning and cyber security features for RoamIO. It has also been accepted into the IBM Affiliations and NVIDIA inception programs and is collaborating with Google Cloud for Startups.

“These are big in the tech world; to be recognized as a legitimate business by them is great,” Pahari says.

At a price of $40,000 per unit, Korechi’s Chief Marketing Officer estimates an ROI of two years in a vineyard or orchard setting, and 12 to 18 months for golf courses.

“Mowing is the principle application (for golf courses) and it is ideal for a robot because it is predictive, you know the shape of a fairway and where the bunkers are,” says Jim Clark, adding RoamIO can also mow at night as the robot is equipped with LIDAR and GPS.

The focus in 2020 is on pilot projects while Korechi waits on the certifications it needs to begin selling RoamIO commercially. And future emphasis will be on fruit and vegetable production, where automation isn’t yet widespread.

“Australia and Netherlands are at the forefront of agricultural robotics, but we want to put Canada on the map. We think Canada has the potential to be a global player in agricultural automation,” Pahari says. “We are not here to steal jobs, we are trying to take care of orphan jobs that no one wants to do. The human-robot collaboration is the future — there is no way around it.”

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