AgBots: Agricultural Robots Take The Field

In one memorable scene from the original Star Wars movie, Luke Skywalker's Uncle Owen is bargaining for agricultural robots with Jawas. Agriculture has been slow to adopt to robotic technology; however, some new developments are on the horizon.

(From Demeter - National Robotics Engineering Consortium)

For example, the Demeter automated harvester provides the following functionality:

  • A "cruise-control" feature, which allows the operator to give control over to the harvester itself for short periods
  • A "drone" feature, which allows one operator to remotely control several harvesters at once
The final step, providing fully autonomous operation, is currently under development. The Demeter project uses off-the-shelf technologies to provide an average guidance accuracy of +/- 3 centimeters.

At the other end of the size spectrum, University of Illinois agricultural engineers are working on robots ("ag robots") small enough to walk in the rows between plants, scouting for weeds and insects, and taking soil tests. These small (approximately one foot long) robots could do the work now tediously done with human-piloted tractors.

"Who needs 500 horsepower to go through the field when you might as well put a few robots out there that communicate with each other like an army of ants, working the entire field and collecting data?"
(Tony Grift, UI agricultural engineer)

Some of the current approaches:

  • "Ag Ant", an inexpensive foot-long bot that works cooperatively
  • Robots using laser guidance systems to maintain a straight path
  • Robots that use ultrasonic sensors that weave from plant to plant

This approach could dispense with many current practices in agriculture, in which entire fields are sprayed with pesticides or other agents. Instead, small robots could administer small doses at the point where they are needed.

Science fiction buffs remember R2D2 and C3PO, of course; but although these robots were purchased for agricultural use, that was not their primary function (as C3PO might put it). The robot gardening crab from William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer is a good example of an elegantly functional "ag robot."

See Demeter and University of Illinois creates robot farmers for more information. Watch a short video of Demeter harvesting here.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 7/6/2004)

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