Agricultural Robotics

Here is a link to the Farm Industry News website featuring the Big Think project where Tony Grift talks about his ideas regarding the potential role of Robotics in Agriculture.

This image is the cover of John Deere's The Furrow Magazine, Summer 2007 . It contains an article titled Space-Age War on Weeds where we outline the C-FAR sponsored project. The Furrow is believed to be the most widely read farm magazine in the world. It is published in 14 languages and is circulated in more than 115 countries. Its worldwide circulation is more than 1.5 million.

Visit the Agricultural Robotics Competition website.

WCIA Interview

Click here to see an interview with the WCIA 3 Morning Show where Craig Cordill and Josh DeLeon talk about the 2007 and 2008 Robotics Competition. If the movie does not play in media player, right click and Save Target As to a location on your computer.

America's Heartland (PBS) Episode 321

Click here to see an episode of America's Heartland where Drs. Tony Grift, Qin Zhang and graduate student Nathanael Gingrich talk about the Future of Farming.

Download a conference paper here:

Here is what James Pinkerton, a columnist who worked under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, has to say about technology development for agriculture.

That's the path America took on its way to becoming a great power. In agriculture, the big breakthrough came in 1831, with the invention of the McCormick Reaper. Mass-produced in Chicago, the reaper enabled two men to cut as much grain in a day as a dozen or more men using traditional reaping hooks. As a result, labor was freed up to work in factories, accelerating the Industrial Revolution - and the American Dream.

Yet, it's noteworthy that the reaper and similar productivity enhancing inventions came to the American North, not the South. In slave-holding Dixie, where labor was free - if you don't count flogging and lynching and putting down bloody uprisings as costs - there was little incentive to develop labor-saving technology. The low-tech status quo seemed quite OK to plantation owners.

In fact, four-fifths of the farming in this country is already done with machines. And what of the rest? What of apple- picking and chicken-processing? Well, it's time for another dose of technology. But you needn't take my word for it. Go to the Web site of the University of Illinois and look up the robotics work of Prof. Tony Grift; he and his colleagues have built harvesting "agbots" for as little as $150 each. And that's before mass production.

Web sites and a list of printed media that featured the Agricultural Robots:

Farm Industry News (April, 2007)
Farm Industry News (March, 2007)
Farm and Range Guide (Dec, 2005)
Resource Magazine (October, 2005)
Resource Magazine (September, 2005)
News-Gazette (March, 2005)
Illini Horizon (December, 2004)
Farm Week (August, 2004)
Farm Journal (October, 2004)
Farm Industry News (July, 2004)
Prairie Farmer I (August, 2004)
Prairie Farmer II (September, 2004)
Illinois Issues (September, 2004)
Illinois Alumni (September, 2004)
De Gelderlander, (Dutch Newspaper) (June 2004)

See also the articles in Time Magazine called Farm of the Future and Mechanical Engineering called Automation Crops up Here These article are about Clay Mitchell's farming operation in Iowa, which is, hands down, the most advanced in the nation.

Agricultural Robotics is the logical proliferation of automation technology into biosystems such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, etc. Robots have the advantage of being small, light weight and autonomous. Because of their size they can collect data in close proximity to the crop and soil. Remote sensing only provides overall information, while robotic scouts can give detailed information about the crop such as the presence of diseases, weeds, insect infestations and other stress conditions.
The light weight of the robots is a major advantage, since they do not compact the soil as larger machinery does.

The first generation of robots is developed as crop scouts that collect data in the field. Although the guidance problem is solved, the required sensors are still under development. Cameras are used to detect weeds, and larger scale sensors are being developed to detect crop stresses and disease. Insect activity sensors and most soil sensors are still on the drawing board.

The second generation of robots will be able to perform field operations such as mechanical weeding and micro spraying, a method where instead of applying large quantities of spray in an inefficient way, small amounts of high concentration chemical could be directly applied to weed plants. All operations that are currently performed in the field can be done with robots, preferably of smaller size and lower cost. Planting, seedbed preparation, spraying, cultivation are all possible with smaller robots using GPS guidance. The only operation that still requires large machinery and capacity is harvesting. This operation will most likely be performed with large robots that resemble current equipment.

The third generation of robots will be as part of a fully autonomous crop production system. This futuristic farm idea is similar to "Houses of the Future" which are abundant, the first one was offered by Monsanto Corporation at California's Disneyland in 1957. The idea behind these futuristic houses is to show how modern technology can contribute to comfort, materials and energy savings, durability and enjoyment of our living spaces. One wonders what the Farm of the Future would look like. Modern technology such as GPS and the much more accurate European counterpart Galileo will deliver affordable and cm precision navigation of vehicles. Sensors will provide real time information about the status of the crop and computer software and data fusion techniques will help to digest the data into management decisions. Robots will roam the fields to care for the plants individually.

The Farm of the Future will provide a playground where universities and companies can work together to demonstrate the potential of technology and the general public will have direct access to it.

AgBo (named after Sony's Aibo) is a flexible robot that was developed by Yoshi Nagasaka (shown right), a Japanese visiting scientist at the department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. The robot is technologically advanced, it features a ( SICK ) laser scanner for guidance, fully independent steering which allows for crabbing, spin turns, front/rear and all-wheel steering. All communications among sensors and controllers were implemented using a Controller Area Network CAN ) bus. The small size wheels performed well in dry soils, although larger wheels are needed in muddy conditions. The robot weighs in at 80 kg's and can also be remote controlled which is useful when it needs to be moved around. AgBo was featured in a Dutch newspaper during its presence at the Field Robot Competition, as organized by Wageningen University, The Netherlands. Click here for a video interview with Yoshi Nagasaka and Tony Grift (7 Mbyte).

AgTracker was developed by Matthias Kasten, a German exchange student through IAESTE . AgTracker is a much simpler robot than AgBo, it was targeted at low cost (<$500). It features simple skid steering with only two motors and is guided by a set of 8 infrared rangers and an absolute electronic compass . The robot is very stable and turns well in soils even under muddy conditions. AgTracker is controlled by a BasicATOM40-M microcontroller, which also takes care of the remote control interfacing.

AgAnt was built as a thought provoker, to convey the idea of having many smaller robots working together as a group. This principle is the foundation of life in general and indeed has been demonstrated in computer programs such as John Conway's Game of Life . However true engineering applications of the synergy among individuals and group dynamics are hard to find. Many problems in agriculture are similar to groups of individuals performing some life sustaining task as the gathering of food. We could envision weeds to be the 'food' for agricultural robots and, since weeds are ecosystems themselves propagating in patches, we could have robotic scouts roam the fields and as soon as one scout detects 'food' (weeds) it could "call in the cavalry" through wireless communication and eradicate the weeds as a group. How about some planet exploration ?

Download HiRes pictures of our robots here:

1a) AgBo1
1b) AgBo2

2a) AgTracker1
2b) AgTracker2

3a) AgAnt1
3b) AgAnt2

4a) AgGiAnt1
4b) AgGiAnt2

Here is a movie of an AgAnt in the snow (2 Mbyte).

Here is a link to a Multiple Robot System simulating a greenhouse scenario.