In the American state of Idaho, a robot moves between lines of fruit trees and grapevines. It is doing farm work.
Called “IdaBot,” this robot is a prototype, or model. An engineering team at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, developed IdaBot.
It looks like a small military tank. But, it is armed with cameras and radio frequency sensors instead of guns. It moves slowly through an orchard, spraying chemicals on each plant that needs treatment.
It can do other jobs too, including watching over crops and harvesting them.
How the robot works
The robot uses radio frequency identification in its work. This process uses electronic devices on the trees or grapevines to identify them. As the IdaBot moves through the orchards, it “reads” the devices on the plants to learn what it needs.
Josh Griffin is one of the project leaders. He explains how the robot works.
“You can program into the IdaBot, trees number one, and trees number five need chemicals. Each tree will have a radio frequency identification tag on it. The IdaBot would use the signal from the tag to determine which tree it is next to. When it is next to tree five, it will spray chemicals on tree number five, when it is on tree number one, it will spray the chemicals there.”
Griffin, an assistant engineering professor, says the robot can work on its own. It can also work with other technology, like drones – small pilotless planes.
In an experiment, a drone carried a special camera that captures images of grapevines or fruit trees.The image information is processed through a computer program. The color of the image lets the robot know how much chemical the plants need.
Griffin says the robot can help farmers save money on labor. It also saves money by reducing the use of chemicals. And that helps the environment.
“It automatically, without human intervention, applies the chemicals and then it does so in very low pressure. So, it does so very precisely. The chemicals go where you want them to go, not over spraying to other areas.”
Fruit Counting Application
The robot team of students and professors is also developing a Fruit Counting Application for the IdaBot. It uses a vision system to correctly estimate the size of the fruit crop.
Duke Bulanon, another assistant engineering professor, works with Griffin on the project. He explains that the system will use several different kinds of cameras—color, near-infrared and stereo cameras. They will take images from each tree as IdaBot moves along the orchard.
“Then we will use those images and create a computer program to estimate the number of fruits on each tree.”
Farmer Michael Williamson owns an orchard in Caldwell, Idaho. He says he is looking forward to trying out the computer program on his trees.
“I am very excited about this experiment and this machine that can count our fruit. We can get a better price for our customers if we pre-order or pre-sell our fruit months in advance. Sometimes it can be better than 20 percent. And that is the important part about the fruit counting.”
Being able to get a correct count of the fruit helps in many ways.
Farmer Williamson says if they have a correct count of the fruit, he can predict how many people he needs for the harvest. He can also predict how many shipping boxes he will need to ship them. And, he says, he can predict the market.
What will it cost?
How much would farmers have to pay for this robot? Big pieces of farm equipment can be expensive. But Griffin estimates a basic IdaBot that uses radio frequency identification technology would be relatively low-cost.
“We do anticipate that it will be fairly affordable. You know, kind of on the order of maybe buying a pickup truck or something like that.”
The researchers expect the money the farmers save by using this robot would also help consumers—because they will find lower fruit prices at the market.
I’m Anne Ball.
Words in This Story
prototype – n. a model of something
radio frequency sensors – n. electronic devices on an item that stores information and gives it to a person or computer
orchard – n. a group of trees where food, like fruit or nuts, are grown
automatically – adv. something that works or happens without being directly controlled by a person
precisely – adv. very accurate and exact
advance – n. before something happens
accurate – adj. free from mistakes or errors
anticipate – v. to think of something that will or might happen in the future
pickup truck– n. a vehicle with an open back and low sides