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Will Robots Make Farm Work a 24/7 Business?
apples_oranges
John Deere, Toro and USDA Seek Solutions for $5B Orchard Harvests
By Henry Lenard


Specialty crop farmers toil from dawn to dusk in their fruit orchards, but they may soon have robot companions to make that work a 24/7 proposition.

Productivity equals profitability

“Once the technology becomes fairly turnkey and well integrated and growers realize the productivity and profitability, we will see that robots really have an advantage over humans in some tasks,” said Dr. Daniel Schmoldt, program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

One natural area would be in overnight crop monitoring and spraying as robots can provide their own lighting, Dr. Schmoldt said. “Humans in the fields generally don’t do well after daylight.”

Dr. Schmoldt’s office oversees two separate projects at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in Pittsburgh that are developing automated farming systems for specialty crops, one focusing on apples and the other on oranges. The combined annual crop yield for both fruits is nearly $5 billion.

The projects are called the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops (CASC) program and the Integrated Automation for Sustainable Specialty Crop Farming Project, respectively.  The former received a four-year, $6-million grant and the latter a three-year, $4-million grant.

Funding for both was through the USDA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative, established as part of the 2008 Farm Bill to solve critical issues facing specialty crops, which includes fruits and vegetables.

Both grants were matched dollar for dollar by industry, state government and other sources. Although funding through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative has now expired, Dr. Schmoldt said that USDA support continues through other funding, including the National Robotics Initiative.

Driverless vehicles central to multiple solutions

The projects are looking at a number of areas, including autonomous vehicles and platforms, digital pest traps, electronic tree counters and new designs for mechanical harvesting. The emphasis is on aiding farm workers rather than replacing them.

The driverless vehicles are at the heart of both projects. Laser sensors and software are mounted on the robotic vehicles and on platforms they pull that rove throughout the orchard to gather data on tree health and crop status. The vehicles can also administer precise amounts of water or chemicals to specific areas or trees, in addition to automating such routine tasks as mowing.

Grafting robotics to agricultural needs

“Our project has two main thrusts: crop intelligence and labor intelligence,” said Dr. Sanjiv Singh, CASC project director. “On crop intelligence, we want to provide growers with timely and high-resolution data on such things as disease, insect infestation, growth rate and prospective yield.”

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Dr. Singh explained that any kind of manufacturing process starts with good information. “Typically, farmers have not had this data. If you don’t know what the problem is, you have no chance of mitigating it,” he said.

“What we are doing is grafting state-of-the-art robotics to meet the needs of agriculture,” said Dr. Singh. “We are educating the growers as to what is tactically feasible and technologically viable.”

For example, knowing how much fruit is on the trees is a big issue for growers. “A bumper crop can be as disastrous as a bad yield. If the cost of the harvest is greater than the contract value, the farmer loses money,” said Dr. Singh.

On the labor side, Dr. Singh said that helping workers be more efficient is a priority. “Specialty agriculture is very labor intensive. We need to rethink how humans and machines can work together and reduce grower vulnerability to labor availability,” he said.

Presently, farm workers must constantly go up and down ladders to maintain and pick fruit. By automating that and allowing the pickers to remain on the platforms for such tasks as pruning, thinning and harvesting, they can be more productive.

Toro’s crop monitor

One such aspect of the CASC project was converting a two-seat Toro four-wheel drive utility vehicle into an autonomous electric system that monitors crops for fruit health and bugs through lasers that have a 200-degree field of vision.

“It is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ this product is ready for market,” said Dana Lonn, director of Toro’s Center for Advanced Turf Technology, one of CASC’s industrial partners. “We are working on the value proposition of making the economics work so that farmers can get the job done at less money.”

Mr. Lonn added that autonomous vehicles are “not quite good enough” to replace workers and there will still need to be some human interaction. One of the challenges remains making such a vehicle a cost benefit for the grower.

As for a price tag, Mr. Lonn estimates that the autonomous vehicle would be roughly twice that of a non-autonomous model that goes for $30,000. 

Separately, the Integrated Automation for Sustainable Specialty Crop Farming Project is being run through the Robotics Institute’s National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC).


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About the author

Henry Lenard is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Business Times and also was editor-in-chief of the former Industry.Net, a national network of regional publications covering manufacturing and computer technology.

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