Robots aren’t just for the movies anymore; they’re playing a role in manufacturing, hospitality, smart home, and, increasingly, agriculture. As the global population mounts and reaches new heights, the time is now to find new ways to leverage robotics in the production of food. It’s possible that only through the use of innovative technologies will the human race meet the demands of the future without depleting Earth’s natural resources or impacting its climate beyond repair.
Agriculture, humans’ original industry, has experienced some radical changes over the centuries, morphing from 100% manual labor to the use of domesticated animals and, eventually, the use of machines. Now, as part of the growing IoT (Internet of Things), technologies like robotics and AI (artificial intelligence) could more efficiently and autonomously achieve what humans have done manually for ages. The use of autonomous machines promises to open the door to greater sustainability in farming and food production. Before these doors can open, however, more solutions need to be developed, tested, and deployed. Once ROI (return on investment) is established by early adopters, mass adoption will make this technology the norm, and farmers, growers, and producers will have little choice but to adopt the latest solutions in order to remain competitive.
This month, teams will go head-to-head in a competition designed to encourage the development of autonomous farming solutions for harvesting and pest and weed identification and eradication. The annual agBOT Challenge will be held May 17-19, 2018 at Gerrish Farms in Rockville, Ind., and its goal is to deliver a combination of equipment and software capable of providing realtime data and analysis to farmers. For instance, the 2018 Weed & Feed Competition requires participants to create a machine that can autonomously navigate a corn field, identify plants, determine whether crops are healthy or in distress, and, if needed, apply fertilizer. If the machine identifies a weed, it should be able to get rid of it chemically or mechanically. Further the machine must be able to provide realtime data about its movements, observations, and actions to a base station.
A second competition within the event, the 2018 Harvest Competition, calls for autonomous machines that are capable of navigating a field and identifying whether or not watermelons are ready for harvest. Upon identifying watermelons, Gerrish Farms says entrants will be judged on their machines’ ability to perform a series of measurements that will help determine the melons’ ripeness. Teams and their machines will also be judged on the robots’ ability to arrange ripe watermelons for processing and provide realtime data about their autonomous movements, plant observations, and more.
The teams competing in this year’s agBOT Challenge may have their eye on the prize money, but the act of inventing new ways to solve agriculture-specific problems will help push the industry forward in terms of robotics innovation and adoption. The more farmers see and hear about the benefits of the IoT in their farms and fields, the more open they will be to experimenting with new types of technologies that are sure to boost efficiency and reduce the use of resources, while also improving crop yield and crop quality.
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