Year in and year out, French farmers dump 30,000 tonnes of herbicides into their crops. The best known, probably because of its bad reputation, is Monsanto's Roundup. This practice is denounced by environmental associations and organic farmers who have been doing without it for a long time.
However, to replace herbicides, until now there have been only two ways: manual weeding, which is long, wearing and tedious; and mechanical weeding with machines attached behind tractors that often prove to be inaccurate. A solution could be provided by robots. This is what young people from Toulouse have imagined by founding their startup Naïo, which markets OZ, the robot magician who weeds all by himself.
L’adventure began in 2011 when Aymeric Barthes, a young graduate of the Mediterranean Institute of Study and Research in Computer Science and Robotics in Perpignan (Pyrénées-Orientales) creates, with one of his classmates, Gaëtan Séverac their company Naïo Technologies. By dint of tests, tinkering and development, they manage to master the main technologies of their ambitious project: robotics, guidance, automatic vision, mathematical data analysis.
All this combined with their good knowledge of the agricultural world and its needs gives birth to OZ, a small robot measuring 40 cm wide by one metre long that slips neatly between the rows of plants at a speed of just over 1 km/h, all by itself. The robot is electric and moves autonomously through the plots thanks to a laser guidance system and camera vision. It thus eliminates all weeds meticulously, cleanly and without any reluctance. Magic for farmers who want to start organic farming but are so hesitant about it that the weeding task is heavy and painful.
Launched in 2015 for a unit price of around €20,000, the OZ robot has attracted around thirty farmers, mainly market gardeners, working on areas of 1 to 10 hectares. But the potential market is six thousand farms in France. It is estimated at 24 billion euros worldwide in 2024.
On the strength of their first successes, the young creators are adding to their team (there are about fifteen of them today), raising funds (they have obtained a funding 3 million and launched a crowdfunding campaign on wiseed); they are thus getting ready to launch other robots. One is a hoeing robot designed for large vegetable crops of more than ten hectares; the other, developed in partnership with the IFV (Institut Français de la Vigne) and the CNRS, is a straddling robot, capable of weeding 5 hectares per day in vineyards. It will come out in 2016.
With these robots, farmers will have no more excuses. They will be able to give up the chemicals that save them time but ruin their soil in particular, our health and the planet in general. No more excuses to stop going organic. All the more so since, although there is a dynamic towards organic farming, conversions towards green agriculture are still modest. The figures published on 25 February by the Agence Bio are, in this respect, eloquent: thehe area under organic farming has increased by 17 % in one year, to reach 1.3 million hectares by the end of 2015. In that year alone, 220,000 hectares went into conversion. However, this performance still represents only 4.9 % of the agricultural territory in France. The number of producers who have abolished pesticides and chemical fertilizers on their farms has increased by 8.5 % to 28,725. Again, this represents only 6.5 % of French farms.