Getting a head start on farming robotics

On 7 May, the first-ever AgBot (agricultural robotics) competition was held in the US on Gerrish Farms, one of the oldest family-owned farms in Indiana.

Hundreds of engineers, students, robot enthusiasts, and industry partners descended upon the nearby town of Rockville to watch teams demonstrate their inventions.

“The need to produce food faster and easier is imperative; reliable labour is harder to find and wages are rising,” notes Agbot.ag. “While the agricultural sector has gradually migrated towards farming supervision based on site-specific crop management, the transition towards advanced robotics technology has been sluggish.”

As a result, AgBot seeks to “integrate innovative technologies to improve observation, intervention, analytic and data storage in agriculture work methods.”

The 2016 AgBot Challenge was to develop an autonomous crop seeder with specific capabilities. The competition was open to any group or organisation interested in mechanical robotics.

In the field
Once registered, teams had to participate in two heats. In Hackathon 1, they had to develop software for data management and software to track seed details from supplier to farmer to tender to planter to soil. In Hackathon 2, they had to develop software, data management and connectivity solutions for the sensing, scanning, and mapping abilities of their robots.

Finally, 11 teams got to test their robotic seeders. They included Purdue University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Grit Robotics, Muchowski Farms, and Pee Dee Precision Ag.

The competition was won by the University of Regina team from Canada, who received a US$50 000 prize (about R700 000).
For a video of the autonomous seed planter designed and built by the students, go to bit.ly/AgBoT.

A three-year programme
Next year, the AgBot Challenge will turn its attention towards weed and pest identification and removal. In 2018, the challenge will focus on autonomous harvesting.

Greg Miles is a livestock farmer and Internet marketer.