This week 1,400 of the world’s foremost agricultural and biosystems engineers are meeting to discuss the latest advancements in farm machinery at the 2013 American Society of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineers (ASABE) International Meeting, this year held in Kansas City, MO. Engineers from as far away as China get 15 minutes to present their latest research projects on everything from berry-picking equipment to swine housing. Their work is changing the mechanics of how farmers produce food, feed and fuel.
“You can probably tell from presentation titles what the topics are,” says Mark Hanna, Iowa State University extension agricultural engineer, who moderated one of the sessions. “There are several papers on seeding mechanisms, followed by harvesting papers on a variety of crops like sorghum, yam, cherries, and combine fires in sunflowers. High-speed photography was used in one analysis. GPS positioning was used to place and retrieve storage bins during cherry harvest.”
The list of projects takes up close to 100 pages in the program guide. Here’s a look at just 10 of them.
- Vehicle guidance lasers. Farm vehicles that steer themselves typically rely on GPS signals to chart their course. But engineers are looking at other types of sensors to supplement, and in some cases replace, satellite navigation. For example, Joon Yong Kim from Seoul National University in Korea is exploring the use of laser distance sensors to guide tractors and farm machinery without the need for an operator. Optical sensors, classified as vision guidance, also are being studied.
- Weeding robots: Lie Tang, Iowa State University-Ames, is developing a high-efficient weeding robot in crop fields. Tang is looking at using plant spacing information in stereo images to identify weeds within the rows. Similar research is taking place in China, where Chunlong Zhang, China Agricultural University in Beijing is studying the design of an intra-row weeding robot.
- Seed meters: Planting only one seed at a time is the key to high yields in corn. Randy Taylor, Oklahoma State University, is evaluating different corn seed singulation meters, including pneumatic metering devices and anti-blocking devices for seed tubes.
- Variable rate irrigation: Several speakers looked at advances in irrigation management. Arndt Gossel, University of Missouri-Columbia, is evaluating the performance of a center pivot variable rate irrigation system. In Canada, Hafiz Ahmed, University of Saskatchewan, is looking at solar-powered center pivot irrigation systems that produce their own energy.
- Mobile apps: Joseph Dvorak, University of Kentucky-Lexington, is moderating a session on mobile apps in agriculture. Topics include a crowdsourcing app for precision agriculture decision-making by Dharmendra Saraswat, University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service-Little Rock; a mobile app for tractor rollover detection and emergency notification by Bo Liu, University of Missouri-Columbia; farm machinery monitoring and route guidance using a tablet PC, Caicong Wu, China Agricultural University-Beijing; and task-specific, collaborative mobile apps and cloud storage services, being developed by Jonathan Welte, Purdue University-West Lafayette, IN.
- Big Data for machinery: For years farmers have used yield and agronomic data to track and improve agricultural production practices. Now, engineers like Joe Luck, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are looking at agricultural field machinery data as a source for Big Data.
- Variable-rate nitrogen sensors: Gary Roberson, North Carolina State Univeristy-Raleigh, is studying sensor-based vs. map-based variable rate nitrogen application.
- Smart pesticide applicators. The science of chemical application continues to advance with new systems. Hui Liu, Ohio State University-Wooster, is studying the influence of travel speed on spray deposition uniformity from an air-assisted variable-rate sprayer. Yue Shen, also from Ohio State, is developing a real-time chemical injection system for air-assisted variable-rate sprayers. And Durham Giles, University of California-Davis, is using unmanned aircraft to apply chemicals on specialty crops.
- Optical crop sensors. John Nowatzki, North Dakota State University-Fargo, is applying optical crop sensor technology, fairly commonly used in corn, to measure soybean needs during the growing season so you can tailor crop input application.
- Wireless networks. Finally, engineers are developing wireless networks that allow machines to communicate and transmit information. Joseph Dvorak, University of Kentucky-Lexington, is developing a wireless network that can control a fleet of field robots. Bo Liu, University of Missouri-Columbia is using smartphones to measuring soil compaction. And Haixia Li, Oklahoma State University-Stillwater, is using a 2.4GHz radio to monitor and transmit crop characteristics during various growth stages.
More details about these and other topics at the conference can be found at http://www.asabemeetings.org/ 
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