Future farming includes robotics

July 15, 2016
John Quinn

From robotic milking machines on dairy farms to autonomous tractors and unmanned aerial vehicles, robots are taking a greater role in everyday tasks on farms.

Demand for agricultural robots is being driven by global trends in population growth, an increasing strain on food supplies, availability of farm labor and cost of farm workers, among other reasons. According to a recent report from Tractica, a market-intelligence firm, applications for agricultural robots will be diverse, including driverless tractors, unmanned aerial vehicles and more.

Forecasts for the worldwide market for agricultural robots predict it will increase from $3 billion in 2015 to $73.9 billion in 2024. Unmanned aerial vehicles will be the most prevalent in terms of unit shipments, which are expected to reach 411,000 by 2024.

“The agricultural robotics market is in its early stage of development,” said Manoj Sahi, research analyst. “The agricultural market is looking for more efficient solutions in terms of time, labor and energy.”

A few years ago, Kinze Manufacturing, based in Iowa, unveiled an autonomous row-crop solution that included a combine and tractor with grain cart that is equipped with GPS sensors so the grain can be unloaded on-the-go — without an operator in the tractor. The project is designed to reduce labor; Kinze is working to make improvements and advancements in order to put the system into place.

A Minnesota-based company, Autonomous Tractor Corporation, has also been transforming tractors into more efficient farm “bots.” In Spring Autonomous Tractor Corp. has completed the first retrofit of a tractor, with its commercial product eDrive — a diesel-electric system that replaces old mechanical drive trains with electric motors. The company is finalizing tests and making refinements on the machine. eDrive is sold as a kit that can be installed onto existing machinery as an after-market product. With eDrive, Autonomous Tractor Corp. aims to create a dual-purpose machine — one that offers the benefits of a manually driven electric vehicle with the promise of becoming an autonomous vehicle in the coming months.

Students of all ages may hold the answer to the future of robotics in farming. The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers international student robotics competition encourages student invention using robotics. The student design competition started in 2006, under the guidance of Tony Grift, an associate professor in agricultural and biological engineering at the University of Illinois. Grift, a native of The Netherlands, has conducted research on robotics and built mechanical weeders that travel solo down crop rows, identifying and spraying weeds.

The competition encourages undergraduate and graduate students to develop innovative robotic solutions to real-life problems in agriculture. Students compete during the organization’s annual international meeting. Each year student teams are issued an agricultural challenge.

This year’s objective requires the construction of a fully automated robotic system designed to simulate the transfer of citrus fruits from harvester to processing plant. Two mobile robots will be required for this competition, where one transfers the fruit to the other robot, which will then move the fruit to its final destination — a processing plant.

Robotic competitions also occur in 4-H groups and with students of all ages. 4-H has engaged youth in science, technology, engineering and math. That has traditionally meant a solid focus on agricultural science, electricity, mechanics, entrepreneurship and natural sciences. Today 4-H has grown to include robotics, biofuels, rocketry, renewable energy, computer science, environmental sciences and more.

“For many young people, 4-H robotics is their first glimpse of a future career in the (science, technology, engineering and math) field,” said Bob Smith, a University of Illinois-Extension volunteer.

To read the rest of this article, published in Agri-View, please click here.

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