January 13, 2016      

The U.S. Department of Agriculture?s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) today announced $2.5 million in grants to advance the use of co-robots that benefit and assist stakeholders in America?s production agriculture field. These three grants are part of the National Robotics Initiative (NRI), a federal research partnership that includes NIFA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Department of Defense, and Department of Energy. The goal of the National Robotics Initiative is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the U.S. to work alongside or cooperatively with people. This program aims to develop the next generation of robotics, advance the capability and usability of such systems and artifacts, and to encourage existing and new communities to focus on innovative application areas.

  1. University of Minnesota, St Paul

Algorithms for COTS robot field labor $914,565 Specialty crop growers rely on manual labor for fruit-picking, inspection, data collection for precision agriculture and similar labor-intensive tasks. It has been difficult to automate these tasks because specialty farms are much less structured environments when compared to commodity farms. However, there is a great need for automating specialty crop tasks because seasonal workers are costly and in short supply and collecting data for precision agriculture methods is difficult. Robotic systems capable of performing specialty crop tasks are becoming commercially available, more robust and affordable. Missing are planning algorithms required for these robots to autonomously operate in complex environments such as apple orchards. The ultimate goal of the proposed work is to develop algorithms so that Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) robot systems can be used in automation tasks involving specialty crops.

  1. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Swarms of UAVs together with human scouts to monitor specialty crops $556,726 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) provide outstanding opportunities to have a transformative impact on farming technology. This proposal outlines research designed to assist farmers in improving the productivity and profitability of their farms thus strengthening rural economies and increasing the economic competitiveness of U.S agriculture. The motivation for this project comes from the challenges faced by the $60B (US only) specialty crop industry (over $600B worldwide). While the three target crops in this proposal account for a small fraction of this industry ($6B in the US), they are representative crops. Solutions that are developed for these three crops can be extended and applied to the entire industry.

  1. University of California, Davis

Robotic harvest-aiding orchard platforms $1,069,598 In fresh market fruit production, harvesting is one of the most labor-intensive operations incurring high cost and dependence on a large seasonal semi-skilled workforce, which is becoming less available. With an eye toward mechanization, growers are increasingly adopting high-density orchards that feature narrow almost two-dimensional canopies that create “fruiting walls”, which are easier to harvest. Harvest-aid platforms are also being developed and offered by several companies as an intermediate step towards full mechanization. These machines aim at increased harvest efficiency by eliminating ladders. The machines we envision will function as co-bots that collaborate with fruit pickers by physically carrying them and intelligently adjusting their vertical positioning with respect to the canopies in the orchard. The proposed machines will use advanced sensing to estimate incoming fruit yield and worker picking speeds.