International Field Robot Event (FRE) to take place virtually in robotic simulator environment

International student teams participating in the virtual event will use NASA simulation technology to complete simulated field tasks: navigation, weed recognition and obstacle detection; transmission live on DLG’s digital platform.

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(DLG) The 18th International Field Robot Event (FRE), an annual international competition for international student teams and their robots, will this year, due to the pandemic, take place as a virtual event on the DLG’s digital platform from 8 to 10 June 2021. Using the same simulation environment as the “NASA Space Robotics Challenge” to test robotic software for space exploration, the virtual FRE event offers participants realistic designs with real-life effects to enact a range of agricultural field scenarios like weed recognition and obstacle detection

Simulated field tasks
Automation and digitization, optimized crop production as well as sustainable agriculture are among the agricultural challenges that have been selected for the virtual field robot contest. Already the event has attracted 14 international student teams from Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Romania and Slovenia, who will present their virtual robots in action, performing complex field maneuvers as part of the simulation tasks.

Offering conditions corresponding closely to those that would be found in real-life farming situations, like the presence of obstacles and weed, the simulation environment produces high-quality lighting, shadows and textures, making it not only realistic but entertaining as well. The 3D robotic simulator “ROS / Gazebo” offers the simulated environment in which the field robots and their algorithms can compete.

Similarly to the real-world field event, the teams and their robots have to solve several compulsory tasks. Contestants receive the test environment, which consists of simulated maize fields, shortly before the event starts, requiring that the robot already possesses a range of skills that have been programmed as control algorithms in advance.

Navigating the robot through a curved crop row, recognizing objects that are weed or simply rubbish and mapping the objects using geo-referencing are part of the challenges that are solved using the algorithms. Interpreting the information, like determining what is weed using a camera is complex, and requires many months of prior development work. A further task involves removing the weed, where accurate software-control of the actuators that operate the tool is needed. The challenge is to make intelligent sense of the data on the day, which involves the robot interpreting the given information and make optimal decisions.

Simulation software also used by NASA
The simulation environment ROS / Gazebo is open-source, supporting software code developed for sensor and actuator simulation. ROS / Gazebo is a simulation environment employed for a number of technological competitions such as DARPA Robotics Challenge, Virtual RobotX Competition and NASA Space Robotics Challenge.

Students can use sensor models within Gazebo to “see” the simulated environment. A laser scanner typically measures the distance to locate the various objects while a camera will interpret the scene, for example watching out for something that might be weed.

“When a robot is designed, a simulation model with algorithms is developed long before the field robot is turned into hardware,“ says Prof. Hans W. Griepentrog, Director, Department of Technology in crop production, University of Hohenheim, Germany. “Software simulation is therefore part and parcel of the field robot development, which means that the student teams participating in the Field Robot Event are very much at home in this simulation environment. The challenge for them here is to bring all the required algorithms into a whole,” adds Prof Griepentrog.

“The agricultural tasks are always a challenge for the teams and their robots, as technical and agricultural process knowledge is essential. However, the fun of the competition should not be neglected,” comments Prof. Griepentrog.

A virtual event, the contest requires field robots to perform the compulsory tasks in a simulated field environment. In the freestyle optional task, the teams can live-stream their physical robots performing an agricultural task of their choice.

Practical field robot research since 2003
The field robot contest, which was launched in 2003 by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, tests pioneering robotics and precision farming technologies under real-world conditions, and gives young scientists the opportunity to exchange and develop their ideas alongside their peers. Like the field event, the competitors in the virtual event have the opportunity to interact with each other and with the international viewers. This interaction is an important part of the event and will help them advance their concepts.

The 2021 FRE event, which has been held at the DLG-Feldtage exhibition since 2014, promises to provide demanding virtual tests for the robots and their inventors, as well as exciting entertainment for the virtual viewers.

The FRE event will be live-streamed on DLG’s digital platform. Viewers are welcome to watch the three-day virtual event on DLG’s digital platform.

Further information on the individual program points and registration: https://www.dlg-feldtage.de/en/technical-programme/field-robot-event-2021

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