Farmers Use AI To Slow Spread Of Deadly Plant Disease

As the bulb fields burst into a riot of springtime color in the Netherlands, a new high-tech machine has emerged: a robot.

Theo, the robot, was named after a retired employee at the WAM Pennings farm on the Dutch North Sea coast. Its purpose is to root out diseases.

To stop the spread of the tulip-breaking virus, the robot cautiously made its way along rows of “goudstuk” tulips—a mix of yellow and red—on a windy spring morning. It checked each plant and, if needed, removed sick bulbs.

After harvesting, the bulbs are sorted in a warehouse to eliminate any dead bulbs from the healthy ones.

Smaller and weaker blooms are the result of the virus’s stunting of plant growth and development.

As the weather heats up and farmers approach peak season, when their bulbs blossom into enormous patchworks of color that attract tourists from around the world, 45 robots are monitoring tulip fields across the Netherlands in an attempt to battle the virus.

The task was formerly performed by humans known as “sickness spotters,” according to Allan Visser, a third-generation tulip grower utilizing the robot for the second round of planting.

Roots, stems, and leaves are plant components that various infectious organisms, such as viruses, fungi, and bacteria, can infect. Traditional methods of plant disease diagnosis require time, knowledge, and resources.

The robot developers have set the price at 185,000 euros ($200,000).

Hunting for the telltale red stripes that appear on the foliage of infected flowers, it rolls at a snail’s pace of 0.6 mph on caterpillar tracks through fields.

According to Erik de Jong of H2L Robotics, the robots’ makers, artificial intelligence helps them detect diseased flowers, and extremely accurate GPS coordinates enable them to kill only those blooms.

After 52 years of searching for ill flowers, Theo van der Voort retired from WAM Pennings farm, and they dedicated his name to the robot.