Tiny robots, the wave of the future

by Enrico Villamaino

Agriculture has fed humanity throughout recorded history, but it must continue to evolve alongside technological advances if it is to meet current worldwide food needs.

That was the overarching theme of “Utilizing Ground Based Rover Technology Across Fields to Aid in its Management,” a discussion panel sponsored by Michigan State University’s Extension program and held during its “Michigan Ag Ideas to Grow With” conference.

The discussion was led by Dr. Girish Chowdhary. An aerospace engineer, Chowdhary also holds joint appointments as associate professor in both the agricultural and biological engineering and computer science departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“If you ask a farmer,” Chowdhary explained, “they will tell you that everything boils down to labor. And finding labor during the growing season can be a big challenge.” On many farms in the U.S., this is usually addressed with large-scale automation. Fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides are used to compensate for the dearth of enough labor. Unfortunately, this methodology provides only very large farms using sizable equipment and a large volume of chemicals an avenue toward profitability. Chowdhary sought an alternative. “This model is not sustainable! I wanted to find a creative way out of this problem,” he said. He figured there had to be a tech-based alternative that fell somewhere between the large tractor and the fieldworker.

Tiny robots, the wave of the future

Dr. Girish Chowdhary, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering and computer science at the University of Illinois, is part of the research team that developed the TerraSentia robot. The device roves over farmland and collects valuable data for farm operators about crop health and disease. Photo courtesy of Girish Chowdhary

His solution? Tiny robots. “The robots are coming to your farm!” said Chowdhary. “It’s inevitable.” Despite his work as an aerospace engineer, Chowdhary drove home the need to take what many think of as outer space-related tech and apply it closer to home. “Forget Mars – we need to concentrate on terraforming here on Earth! Robotic solutions to shaping the earth will be key to maximizing our crop yields while making a net positive for the climate.” Net positives for the climate would be achieved by reducing the amount of chemicals used and fuel needed for heavy machinery.

When first pondering the problem, Chowdhary considered drones. He quickly dismissed that idea since the robots would need to operate on the ground, under the crop canopy, using sensors to make and record observations up close. These land-based bots can relay valuable data about crop health and precise locations of emerging disease, allowing fewer farmhands to finish far more fieldwork.

As co-founder of EarthSense, an agricultural intelligence firm, he was a member of the research team that won the 2021 Illinois Innovation Network’s (IIN) Innovation Award for its development of the TerraSentia robot. The device, which by its appearance could be mistaken for a child’s toy, or perhaps a supporting character in a “Star Wars” film, uses sensors to collect data as well as machine learning-based analytics to convert this information into suggested courses of actions for farm operators.

Since TerraSentia robots can be used to reduce fertilizer costs, control weeds and earn carbon credits, they are worth a second look by farm operations large and small.

“Obviously, these robots can be of use to smaller operations,” said Chowdhary. “But, at the same time, very large properties can benefit as well. Look at the Midwest – the Midwest is key. Corn and soybean growers have very slim profit margins. At the same time that these robots are helping the climate, they can also save these farms money through less wear and tear on large machinery and less chemicals purchased.”

For more information visit earthsense.co and iin.uillinois.edu.

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