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Discrete and Process Automation

Watch: Robot for Agricultural Growth Analyzes Crop Health

13 March 2018

Researchers and scientists from the University of Illinois have developed the Terra Sentia, a low-cost and low-weight robot that phenotypes crops and provides farmers with information on their crop health. The new robot will be shown at the 2018 Energy Innovation Summit Technology Showcase on March 14.

Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary is leading a team in developing the TerraSentia. Source: L. Brian StaufferAgricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary is leading a team in developing the TerraSentia. Source: L. Brian Stauffer

This new robot travels on its own through crop rows, using its sensors and cameras to measure the traits of plants and then transmits the data to the farmer’s phone or laptop in real time. The robot comes with a custom app and tablet that allows the robot operator to use virtual reality and a GPS to steer the robot through the crop fields.

Researchers are currently developing machine learning algorithms that allow the robot to be taught how to detect common crop diseases. These machine learning algorithms also allow the robot to measure crop traits like plants and corn ear height, leaf area index and biomass.

"These robots will fundamentally change the way people are collecting and utilizing data from their fields," said U. of I. agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary. He is leading a team of students, engineers and postdoctoral researchers in the development of the robot.

The TerraSentia weighs 24 pounds and is 13 inches wide, which means it won’t damage young and growing plants if it accidentally rolls over them. Its portability allows farmers and agronomists to bring the robot anywhere they need to without having to worry about transport.

This type of automated data collection and analytics could improve the breeding pipeline by figuring out why plants respond differently to environmental conditions, according to U. of I. plant biology professor Carl Bernacchi.

The data that the robot collected could help farmers to figure out which plant lineages have the potential to produce the best crops in the future.

"It will be transformative for growers to be able to measure every single plant in the field in a short period of time," Bernacchi said. "Crop breeders may want to grow thousands of different genotypes, all slightly different from one another, and measure each plant quickly. That's not possible right now unless you have an army of people - and that costs a lot of time and money and is a very subjective process. A robot or swarm of robots could go into a field and do the same types of things that people are doing manually right now, but in a much more objective, faster and less expensive way.”

TerraSentia is the future of the huge machinery with the ability to cultivate of spray acres of land and which is currently on the market and in use on farms. It also eliminates the need for human workers who gather the plant data currently at very slow rates.

"There's a big market for these robots not only in the U.S., where agriculture is a profitable business but also in developing countries such as Brazil and India, where subsistence farmers struggle with extreme weather conditions such as monsoons and harsh sunlight, along with weeds and pests," Chowdhary said.

Currently, there are a few large U.S. universities and partners overseas are testing 20 TerraSentia robots in the spring farming season. The team hopes to release this robot to farmers within the next three years at around $5,000 per robot.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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