July 7, 2004 (ENS): In the not too distant
future, farms may be tended by agricultural robots moving
up and down the rows, scouting for insects, blasting
weeds and taking soil tests.
University of Illinois agricultural engineers have developed
several ag robots, one of which resembles R2D2, except
that it is square, not round.
"The robots are completely autonomous, directing
themselves down corn rows, turning at the end and then
moving down the next row," said Tony Grift, an
agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois
Eventually, said Grift, these small, inexpensive robots
to take on some of the duties now performed by large,
expensive farm equipment. "Who needs 500 horsepower
to go through the field when you might as well put a
few robots out there that communicate with each other
like an army of ants, working the entire field and collecting
data?" he asked.
He said the robots are part of a "smaller and
smarter" approach to farming.
One of the robots coming out of ag engineering is a
foot-long Ag Ant, designed to walk through crop rows
on mechanical legs. Built for only $150, these cheap
robots could someday be used to form a robotic strike
"We're thinking about building 10 or more of these
robots and making an ecosystem out of them," Grift
said. "If you look at bees, they will go out and
find nectar somewhere. Then a bee will go back and share
this with the group and the whole group will collect
the food. Similarly, one robot might find weed plants.
Then it would communicate this location to the other
robots and they would attack the plants together as
a group - an ecosystem, if you will."
In addition to the Ag Ant, Grift and Yoshi Nagasaka,
a visiting scholar from Japan, developed a more expensive,
high-tech robot for about $7,000. This robot guides
itself down crop rows using a laser mounted in front
to gauge the distance to corn plants.
Nagasaka, has had experience with ag robots, developing
autonomous rice planters for the landscape of rice paddies
Grift and Matthias Kasten, an intern from Germany,
have built yet another robot, this one for roughly $500.
The robot is equipped with two ultrasonic sensors that
bounce sound waves off of objects, as well as four of
the cheap infrared sensors used in simple motion detection
These low-budget robots maneuver down crop rows using
what Grift calls "the drunken sailor" approach.
The robot drifts to the left, senses a corn plant, then
steers off to the right, senses another plant and steers
back to the left. As a result, the robot weaves its
way between the rows. To make turns at the end of a
row, sensors detect when crop rows end and then signal
the robot to turn.
Grift would like to someday see an experimental farm
where all of the work is being performed by autonomous
robots. And he said the logical place for such an ambitious
farm would be Illinois.
"Instead of applying all of this spray that might
drift everywhere, a robot could actually spit chemical
at the plant with great precision, using a very small
amount of chemical," Grift said. "We have
all kinds of wild ideas."