A future question you may ask when you see a newly planted field Did a human do that A new robotics competition is opening the door to enhanced automation for farm work

A future question you may ask when you see a newly planted field: Did a human do that? A new robotics competition is opening the door to enhanced automation for farm work.

Robot planting challenge

There’s a robotic planting challenge happening in 2016, with tough goals and big prize money. Teams are lining up already to meet some very specific requirements for automated planting.

The dream of automated systems doing the big chores on the farm are closer to reality than ever, but are they ready for prime time? A new competition slated for May of 2016 will offer a look at just how far the industry has come, and perhaps how much farther it has to go. Yet teams of students and tech experts are signing on for the challenge of building and operating a robotic planter system capability of planting seed with no humans near by.

The event is the first-ever 2016 agBOT Challenge sponsored by an organization called airBridge Agricultural Communication Solutions. So far 9 teams have accepted the challenge. Their assignment is to develop an efficient, unmanned crop seeder. But it has to do more than just plant. Competition rules say it must be capable of ‘planting two varieties of seed over half-mile long rows.” In addition, competitors must “develop hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces to enable their robotic technology and further propel the field of agriculture and robotics.” The robotic planter must “provide real-time data and utilize a mobile-tracking antenna.”

These will not be run-of-the-mill planters, even by today’s standards. The planter must be able to plant two rows at a time, and a total of 12 rows, according to an assigned set of GPS coordinates. It must be able to apply fertilizer, and operate between 3.5 and 10 miles per hour. And it must be able to fulfill a range of other tasks.

The robot planter also must dock and load two varieties of seed, weigh them and send data to the operator, located elsewhere. It must be able to dock and load starter fertilizer as well.

Information it needs to relay to the operator includes down pressure on press wheels, net seed weight, seed rate, fertilizer weight and rate, speed, heading and position. Teams must also design their planters so that they can intervene in progress and control such things as seed rate, fertilizer rate, downpressure, heading and speed.

It’s a tall order. The nine teams working on the challenge include Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Purdue University, Virginia Tech University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, University of Regina, Case Western Reserve University, a joint team on MESATech, Grit Robotics and Muschowski Farms and Pee Dee Precision Ag,.

The winning team collects $50,000. The competition takes place May 7 in Rockville, Ind. Stay tuned for details. Second place gets a cash prize of $30,000, and third place takes home $20,000.

And this is just a first for this challenge, in 2017 the group is planning an agBOT challenge for pest and weed identification and eradication. For 2018, the challenge is for harvest method robotics.

Awards will come from sponsors. Sponsorship opportunities are still available. Learn more at agbot.ag

- Tom Bechman is editor of Indiana Prairie Farmer, and covers technology and machinery for the Penton Agriculture state/regional farm magazine group.

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