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Uni researchers develop robots that can work with crops

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Researchers at the Uni-versity of Illinois have dev-eloped small-scale robots that can fertilise, weed and cull single plants in a field.

By applying and integrating layers of technologies – in-cluding sensors, machine learn-

ing, artificial intelligence, high-

throughput phenotyping plat-forms such as drones and small-scale rolling robots – the scientists’ ultimate goal is replacing farmers’ reliance on heavy machinery.

The researchers call their effort COALESCE – COntext Aware LEarning for Sustainable CybEr-agricultural systems.

They have just won a five-year, $7 million Cyber-Physical Systems Frontier award jointly funded by the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Introducing the latest cyber capabilities in sensing, modeling and reasoning to the real world of plants and soil, the researchers believe it will “enable farmers to respond to crop stressors with lower cost, greater agility, and significantly lower environmental impact than current practices”.

Lead principal investigator for the project is Soumik Sarkar, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State University, who said: “You hear about precision agriculture all the time. Now we’re trying to move another notch above that.”

Another professor at the uni-versity, Asheesh Singh, describes it as “ultra-precision agriculture”.

He said: “A lot of agricultural problems start in a small area of a field.

“We want to localise problems early on – make decisions and start controls before they affect the whole field and adjoining farms.

“Working at the plant level gives us that ultra-high precision with row crops such as soybeans.”

The researchers think the technology could be affordable and accessible enough to help producers who grow vegetables and other speciality crops on farms of various sizes.

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