Arthur de Crook on robotics in agrifood

Arthur de Crook is co-founder and Ambassador of RoboValley. Along with Dan Harburg of Anterra Capital, he will speak at the F&A Next 2018 on robotics start-ups that promise to have a major impact on the agrifood sector. Arthur de Crook is an agrarian economist on a social mission. He wants to entice agrifood entrepreneurs to deploy robotics to make their businesses more sustainable. That’s why he set up RoboValley, a tech-transfer & innovation hub at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, dedicated to entrepreneurs who want to find out more about robotics. “Thanks to robots, we can inspect food better and we can work the land with lighter machines,” says De Crook. “We can also process food more efficiently, which helps to prevent food waste.”

When people think about robotics, their first thought is usually robots in the auto industry. To what extent will robots affect the average entrepreneur?

“We’re in the middle of an enormous expansion in robotics. Technologies like the internet of things, artificial intelligence, data analysis, drones, and blockchain are more and more interlinked. There are endless possibilities for applications that combine these, and they can take on many different forms. In the future, there will be swarms of drones hovering above us to monitor things like air quality, temperature and seat occupancy.”

At F&A Next, you will be talking about start-ups that are pioneers in robotics. Can you give us a sneak preview?

“A good example is Blue River Technologies. They’ve managed to robotize the thinning of lettuce plants using drones and ground robots, which leads to a dramatic reduction in the amount of herbicides required. Another inspiring start-up is FTNON, which makes a robot that processes iceberg lettuce in a smart way: the robot looks through the head of lettuce, detects the core, and cuts around it fast without wasting any of it. The robot also checks the quality of each head. With this data, plant breeders can grow better crops in future. A third example is AeroVinci’s autonomous flying drone colonies that monitor crops on the land. They allow farmers to intervene more effectively and using lighter vehicles. These examples show that the development of robotics is rapidly gaining momentum.”

What technological breakthroughs are driving this momentum?

“One breakthrough is the advancements in artificial intelligence, which enables a robot to ‘see’ better and better, and to have ever-improving hand-eye coordination. This could significantly accelerate the development of harvest robots.”

Why would an average farmer start using robots?

“Business succession can be a reason. Robotics can make a business more appealing. We’re already seeing this in the dairy, fodder, and asparagus sectors: robots make the work less dull and dirty.”

Isn’t it a huge step for entrepreneurs?

“We often need to give entrepreneurs a little push, and that’s what RoboValley is for. We start by helping people realize what robotics can do for their company or sector. As soon as entrepreneurs see what is possible — through us or at another company — they begin to get excited. Still, they often find it difficult to see exactly what it could mean for their own company. You can see them thinking: what will work best at my firm, how much will it cost, how high is my risk? That’s why we created the Rabo Robo Challenge. For the Challenge, we first bring entrepreneurs together and inform and inspire them with the latest trends in robotics. Then we explore the possibilities for their companies through personal interviews and company visits. The next step is to investigate what the business case might look like. Challenge participants can develop this in more detail with advisors from Accenture. They can also call upon Rabobank to help make the initial investment.”

RoboValley has already helped several F&A entrepreneurs to try out robotics. How did it go?

“One business that processes raw materials wanted to create a safer work environment following a fatal accident with a forklift. They were considering deploying large robots, but we advised them to use a system with small robots that would transport fewer raw materials at a time. We also advised an orchid grower about a robot that could count the buds and detect defects. That’s something a robot can do more efficiently than humans. Their new system ended up with a score of 103%!”