University of Illinois
agricultural engineers have developed several ag robots, one of
which actually resembles R2D2, except that it's square instead of
round. The robots are completely autonomous, directing themselves
down corn rows, turning at the end and then moving down the next
row, said Tony Grift, University of Illinois agricultural engineer.
The long-term goal, he said, is
for these small, inexpensive robots to take on some of the duties
now performed by large, expensive farm equipment. As Grift asked,
"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?"
He said it's all part of the
"smaller and smarter" approach.
And speaking of ants, one of
the robots coming out of ag engineering is a foot-long "Ag Ant,"
which is being designed to walk through crop rows on mechanical
legs. Built for only $150, these cheap robots could someday be used
to form a robotic strike force.
"We're thinking about building
10 or more of these robots and making an ecosystem out of them,"
Grift said. "If you look at bees, they will go out and find nectar
somewhere. Then a bee will go back and share this with the group,
and the whole group will collect the food. Similarly, one robot
might find weed plants. Then it would communicate this location to
the other robots and they would attack the plants together as a
group -- an ecosystem, if you will."
In addition to the Ag Ant,
Grift and Yoshi Nagasaka, a visiting scholar from Japan, developed a
more expensive, high-tech robot for about $7,000. This robot guides
itself down crop rows using a laser mounted in front to gauge the
distance to corn plants.
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Meanwhile, Grift and Matthias
Kasten, an intern from Germany, have built yet another robot, this
one for roughly $500. The robot is equipped with two ultrasonic
sensors that bounce sound waves off objects, as well as four of the
cheap infrared sensors used in simple motion detection sensors.
These low-budget robots
maneuver down crop rows using what Grift calls "the drunken sailor"
approach. The robot drifts to the left, senses a corn plant, then
steers off to the right, senses another plant and steers back to the
left. As a result, the robot weaves its way between the rows.
To make turns at the end of a
row, sensors detect when crop rows end and then signal the robot to
Robots have been a part of
industrial environments for decades now, but Grift said the time may
be right for robots to adapt to the more rugged environment
outdoors. His partner, Nagasaka, has had considerable experience
with ag robots, developing autonomous rice planters for the
challenging landscape of rice paddies in Japan.
Grift would like to someday see
an experimental farm where all of the work is being performed by
autonomous robots. And he said the logical place for such an
ambitious farm would be Illinois. But right now, they're simply
focusing on navigation skills for the robots. Eventually, these
robots could be equipped to perform duties, such as detecting
disease, weeds or insects, sampling soil, or even applying
"Instead of applying all of this spray that might drift everywhere,
a robot could actually 'spit' chemical at the plant with great
precision, using a very small amount of chemical," Grift said. "We
have all kinds of wild ideas."
of Illinois news release]