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102 T he world’s population is currently more than 7.9 billion people, a number that continues to grow, with projected birth rates anticipated to take us to 8 billion in 2023 and 9 billion in 2057. Feeding so many people is a daunting task, but as discussed in our previous articles on new agricultural technologies, growers are finding it harder and harder to recruit and keep employees, as much of the work involved is generally considered arduous, tedious and unfulfilling. Continued growth of crop yields while avoiding productivity shortfalls around the world is absolutely critical if we are to have enough food to supply our needs, and to halt or even undo the painful food price increases in some regions. Autonomous systems are ideal here: the simpler and more repetitive a task is, the easier it is to automate it with a robotic solution. There is additional motivation for growers to invest in such solutions, as labour accounts for around one-third of their operating costs. If this can be lowered by using unmanned vehicles, it could make a huge difference towards keeping their food prices competitive, or towards plans for expanding their growing facilities without being held back by labour shortages. One important task is de-leafing. The lowest leaves sprouting from vine- type crops such as tomatoes must be removed, as they are the oldest and least beneficial for ongoing growth, and mainly just block sunlight from reaching the plant. That might sound like an easy job, but estimates based on studies of industrial greenhouses suggest it takes between 1200 and 1400 hours of work per hectare per year. That said, Tom Coen, CEO of Priva (and sister company Octinion) notes, “Creating a robot for de-leafing is easier and simpler, operationally speaking, than making a robotic tractor or a similar Rory Jackson finds out how this de-leafing UGV addresses key issues in modern agriculture A cut above February/March 2022 | Unmanned Systems Technology Priva’s Kompano UGV is the first of several the company plans to release for autonomous horticulture (Images courtesy of Priva)