New agricultural robot speed up data collection, observes growing crops

The TerraSentia crop phenotyping robot.

Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary is leading a team that includes crop scientists, computer scientists and engineers in developing TerraSentia, a crop phenotyping robot.
Agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary is leading a team that includes crop scientists, computer scientists and engineers in developing TerraSentia, a crop phenotyping robot. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Scientists at the University of Illinois have developed a new lightweight, low-cost agricultural robot that could transform data collection and field scouting for agronomists, seed companies, and farmers. This TerraSentia crop phenotyping robot will be featured at the 2018 Energy Innovation Summit Technology Showcase in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 14.

The robot is operated via the custom app and tablet computer that come with the robot enable the operator to steer the robot using virtual reality and GPS.

U. of I. agricultural and biological engineering professor Girish Chowdhary said, “TerraSentia is customizable and teachable. It will fundamentally change the way people are collecting and utilizing data from their fields.”

“At 24 pounds, TerraSentia is so lightweight that it can roll over young plants without damaging them. The 13-inch-wide robot is also compact and portable: An agronomist could easily toss it on a truck seat or in a car trunk to transport it to the field.”

U. of I. plant biology professor Carl Bernacchi, one of the scientists collaborating on the project said, “Automating data collection and analytics has the potential to improve the breeding pipeline by unlocking the mysteries of why plant varieties respond in very different ways to environmental conditions.”

“Data collected by the crop-scouting robot could help plant breeders identify the genetic lineages likely to produce the best quality and highest yields in specific locations.”

“It will be transformative for growers to be able to measure every single plant in the field in a short period of time. Crop breeders may want to grow thousands of different genotypes, all slightly different from one another, and measure each plant quickly. That’s not possible right now unless you have an army of people – and that costs a lot of time and money and is a very subjective process.”

“A robot or swarm of robots could go into a field and do the same types of things that people are doing manually right now, but in a much more objective, faster and less expensive way.”

Chowdhary said, “TerraSentia fills “a big gap in the current agricultural equipment market” between massive machinery that cultivates or sprays many acres quickly and human workers who can perform tasks requiring precision but move much more slowly.”

“There’s a big market for these robots not only in the U.S., where agriculture is a profitable business but also in developing countries such as Brazil and India, where subsistence farmers struggle with extreme weather conditions such as monsoons and harsh sunlight, along with weeds and pests.”

“We’re getting this technology into the hands of the users so they can tell us what’s working for them and what we need to improve. We’re trying to de-risk the technology and create a product that’s immediately beneficial to growers and breeders in the state of Illinois and beyond.”

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