May 22, 2022

Machines of the future: Robots give farmers a helping hand

AMES, Iowa — Robots have a lot of benefits to offer the agricultural industry.

“Today we have tractors that are offered with the option of connecting to the cloud,” said Santosh Pitla, associate professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at the University of Nebraska.

“We are using drones to fly over fields to observe crop conditions, to look at corn plants and for weed identification,” said Pitla during a webinar organized by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Pitla spoke about a recent CAST Issue Paper — Ground and Aerial Robots for Agricultural Production: Opportunities and Challenges.

“Machines of the future could be smaller machines that go under the crop canopy, some could be high clearance robots and some could be drones spraying in the field,” he said.

A variety of robots could be part of the connected farm of the future, Pitla said.

“You might have unmanned aerial systems looking at problems at a high level, some ground robots that go underneath the canopy and high clearance robots which not only sense the crop, but also do some sort of application,” he said. “Robotic manipulators could be in the barn milking the cows and also providing feed delivery or phenotyping the animals.”

Some companies are working on small autonomous tractors with the idea to replace one big machine with multiple smaller machines.

“The motivation is the ability to reduce risk,” Pitla said. “For example, if you have 10 machines working in a field and one is down, the remaining nine machines can still work and this also benefits the reduction in soil compaction.”

Farming as a service may also be developed in the future.

“Instead of producers buying the machines, companies will offer them as a service like a custom operation,” Pitla said.

Unmanned aerial systems are advancing at a fast pace, Pitla said.

“Companies are starting to offer drones that can spray and handle higher payloads,” he said.

At the University of Nebraska, researchers are working with a 60 horsepower robot that used to collect soybean plot information.

“Robotic manipulators or robotic arms are used to phenotype corn and soybean plants or to sense the chlorophyll content,” Pitla said.

One of the challenges for orchards is availability of seasonal labor during harvest.

“Work is being done on automating the fruit picking process with a robotic ground vehicle that gets close to the tree and a robotic arm that picks the apples,” Pitla said.

When there is one fruit in front of another, these machines are currently challenged to differentiate between the two fruits.

“So, the robots are still slower than humans who can pick faster than the robots,” Pitla said.

Pitla said that a lot of work needs to be done with ground and aerial robots in row crop fields.

“Algorithms need to be developed not only for operating one robot, but a fleet of robots to distribute tasks which may be the same task or different tasks,” he said. “There are liability, security and data privacy concerns with ground robots.”

Aerial robots can’t operate in high winds and there are payload limitations, Pitla said.

“They can’t operate autonomously. There still needs to be a person monitoring them according to federal regulations,” he said.

Robotic milking machines have been utilized in dairy operations for many years.

“There are 35,000 milking stations, so that is a mature technology,” Pitla said. “In the poultry industry, robots are being developed to pick eggs from the floor.”

Important enabling factors for the deployment and adoption of robots in agriculture are machine vision and artificial intelligence technologies.

“Cyber infrastructure and farm connectivity are necessary for logistics so if a robot is out of seed or chemicals, it can communicate with other robots so the material logistics can happen,” Pitla said.

“Multipurpose robotic machines could present economic viability, like tractors that are used for multiple operations,” he said.

“Data sets for seamless sharing of data are important so when robots are working in a field they can share data with chemical companies to enable effective decision making,” Pitla said.

“Robots have a lot of benefits to offer and the regulatory environment must keep pace with this changing landscape of agriculture,” he said.

For more information about the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, go to www.cast-science.org.