The electronics industry has been the pride of Niš and the entire south of Serbia for decades, so the development of IT companies that has been recorded in that city for the past few years is attributed by many to the long-standing tradition in the electronics sector. However, the new companies that are founded in Niš, mostly in the Science and Technology Park, have almost nothing to do with the former Electronics Industry and are the result of the good work of the Electronics, Mechanical, Natural and Mathematical and other faculties in that city, so now Niš IT entrepreneurs are making robots and digital hives.
Young people from the entire south of Serbia study in higher education institutions in Nis, and a good part of them find work in the city where they obtained their university diploma. They know how to produce cathodes, for which the Electronic Industry was once known, but their products are now from a completely “different film” and belong to the very top of modern technologies. At the same time, the fact that they work in a city much smaller than Belgrade is not an obstacle to their success.
In the company “Coming”, whose experts work on the production of various robots, they emphasize that they have not had any difficulties so far because they do not work in the Serbian capital. “It is easier for companies in the IT sector that work in Belgrade and Novi Sad to find experts because there are more of them there, but in Niš we have the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and Electronics, which are extremely good and respected and provide really good staff”, says Nikola Velčev from the company “Coming”, which received significant funds from the Fund for Innovation Activities, and from Startek the award for the best innovation.
Multi-purpose robot farmer
Velcev points out that “Coming” is well on its way to, after creating a sheep-guarding robot called “Separd“, also creating a robot “Agar” that will be able to perform almost all tasks in agriculture, from plowing to planting, spraying, irrigation, until picking.
“We started the production of ‘Agar’ in February of this year and we made the first prototype, and we will continue with improvement and development until February 2024.” What will make our robot different from others is not only that it will be able to perform different tasks, but also that it will be able to be used on very steep terrains. “Agar” will overcome slopes of up to 40 degrees without any problems,” our interlocutor points out.
“Agar” is designed so that it can perform tasks that are on the ground itself, for example picking strawberries, and in a few seconds the robotic platform can be adjusted and raised, so that the robotic arm can reach two meters or two meters and 10 centimeters. “Our goal is to create a platform that will allow system integrators to develop sequels.” Literally like a tiller that has a large number of extensions for different activities. Currently, there are robots on the market that are specialized only for certain jobs,” explains Velčev.
Around 30 experts from the company “Coming” and the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Niš are working on the development of the robot, and the project is financed by the Innovation Activity Fund. “We tested it in the field and pulled 345 kilograms at a 30-degree incline.” Now we are working on making it a little lighter because we decided that we made it too strong. This will increase its carrying capacity by 30 to 50 kilograms. We developed automatic leveling so that when it encounters a climb, it lowers the front end, which gives it stability. With the ‘battery swap’ technology that we installed, with three batteries it will be able to work without interruption 24 hours a day,” claims Velcev.
Farmers who buy Agar will have to undergo training to operate it, but starting the robot will not be complicated. “The robot will be able to be controlled with the help of a joystick, and it will also have an autonomous system and will be able to move with the help of sensors, detect obstacles and bypass them.” It will have GPS navigation, so it will be able, with the help of marked points, to get from home to the field on its own,” notes Velcev.
According to his words, the plan of the experts working on the development of “Agar” is to lower the price enough by the time series production starts, in two or three years, so that not only large farms can afford it, but also small producers. Currently, agricultural robots sold on our market cost over 100,000 euros, which is a huge figure for farmers.
Velcev says that they are finalizing some changes to the sheep herding robot, after which it will go on sale.
Digital assistant in the apiary
Petar Pejić, one of the founders and director of the company “Beehold”, points out that Niš has a scientific base, i.e. faculties from which companies get talent, so he does not see the lack of experts as a complicating factor for the development of companies in that city. “What makes our work difficult is that all events are in Belgrade.” There are promotions, meetings, important gatherings. For a meeting that lasts only one hour, we have to leave our jobs for the whole day, if we want to be there,” comments Pejić.
The company “Beehold” is developing a hardware and software system for the digitization of beekeeping that will provide beekeepers with complete information about the state of the hive. Pejić states that apiaries are often 100 kilometers or more away from beekeepers and cannot be controlled without protective equipment, and statistics show that during control, 80 percent of hives are opened unnecessarily and the bees are disturbed. Thanks to the digitization of the hives on which “Beehold” is working, beekeepers will not have to constantly go to the apiary, open each hive and inspect frame by frame, but all this will be possible on a mobile phone, while the “digital assistant” will warn them of possible problems and give recommendations on how to solve these problems.
“We were able to make underlays and frames that allow beekeepers to see the condition of the hives.” We have been working on these products for the past two years and this summer they were in the apiaries. “Beekeepers who bought them can see the condition of the hives, whether there is honey and how much, with one click on their computer or phone,” explains Pejić.
Experts at “Beehold” want to upgrade their invention with artificial intelligence, which will monitor what is happening in a bee colony instead of beekeepers. “For beekeepers who have a large number of hives, it is too laborious to observe each frame separately. That is why we are developing artificial intelligence that will be able to inspect everything in a few seconds and warn if something bad is happening in one of the hives. The hardware and software we are working on will be able to detect even micro changes that are not visible to the ‘naked eye’, which will make it possible to prevent the spread of diseases and the death of bees. In 2016, 35 percent of bees died out on the globe, and the cause of the majority is unknown. We believe that by constantly monitoring the beehives, we will provide answers to many questions, not only those related to honey production,” says Pejić.
Authors of digital hives and beekeepers themselves
The company tested the first prototype of the bee digital assistant last year in the apiary in Vlasina, and the second, improved one, in the International Center for Physiology and Ecology of Insects in Kenya. Both prototypes proved to be excellent and did not affect the functioning of the bees, because they are not in contact with electronics. Pejić states that research in the world has shown that exposure to light rays in a certain spectrum does not bother bees, that it even helps them survive in the event that they are poisoned by pesticides, and they use those light rays for sensors in the hives.
Tihomir Đurković, also one of the founders of the “Beehold” company, says that this year they sold the first ten devices, and recently they offered interested parties the second generation of digital beekeeping systems. “The selling price is lower than the production price, but we don’t want to give the device away, but to get it into the hands of those who really want to use it.” We need feedback from the beekeepers who use the device for further development of both hardware and software,” notes Đurković.
The company “Beehold” has already received numerous domestic and foreign awards for its innovation, with the unique assessment of the jury that their invention will significantly improve beekeeping and provide beekeepers with better results, with the same effort. The authors of the digital assistant in bee farms came up with this idea because they are engaged in beekeeping themselves, and they saw that such an assistant would make their work significantly easier.