By Christina Stella
On a recent bright, clear day in eastern Nebraska, a small red machine crept through a lush field of soybeans. From the highway, it looked like a small tractor. Up close, its mess of wires came into focus. So did the laptop strapped to the back.
This is the Flex-Ro (Flexible Robotic Unit), one of several robots across the world being designed and tested to help farmers maximize crop yield, use fewer pesticides, and manage the industry’s dwindling labor market.
It’s a change some early-career farmers are ready to embrace. But for the average farmer, who’s 55 or older and didn’t grow up with computers and tables, transitioning to a higher-tech method of farming will not be easy. In order to work for their consumers, robots will need to be smarter than a person, but designed simply enough for any one to troubleshoot with their own tools.
Santosh Pitla, a professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is developing the Flex-Ro, an autonomous field robot designed to identify and study crops in the field.
“This tractor is navigating by itself using a GPS,” he said, “one of the applications we are looking for this robotic platform is as a sensing platform. So we have cameras, height sensors, temperature humidity sensors.”
Pitla originally designed the robot to scout crops — that is to do the job of the people who evaluate the quality of a farm’s soil and crops and advise farmers on how to better care for their crops.
The Flex-Ro currently stores all of the pictures it takes of crops on a laptop. In the future, the robot will send that data to a cloud. (Photo by Christina Stella, NET News)
But the machine’s abilities have since been expanded to seeding crops, managing weeds and target-spraying pesticides.
“So you can add, we can add at least up to 50 to 60 computers on this machine. And it will not affect the overall design,” he said.
The machine has done well on social media. That’s how Dan Bauer, a 23-year-old corn and soy farmer in north-central Nebraska found it. He said he’s hopeful that robot-driven precision agriculture will provide farmers with more data about their fields than ever before.
“[It’s] amazing when you think about it, because we're taking 160 acres and we're breaking it all the way down to the square foot of elevation, slope, soil chemistry, biological aspects. It's just, there's so many things that we can pull from it ... and we just started in on that,” he said. “That makes me excited.”
The average farmer didn’t grow up using computers. Keeping up with newer technologies requires time and commitment. Jim Arens, a 73-year-old farmer in northwestern Nebraska, had to teach himself how to use the pivot monitors his sons installed a few years back.
“Most people my age don't want anything doing a computer. But I've been able to keep up because I forced myself to learn a bookkeeping system with a computer,” Arens said. Others, he said, “not so much.”
Arens isn’t strictly against newer farm technologies. But fully autonomous field robots?
“I would kind of draw the line there myself, I guess, because I just don’t think taking the human element out of it entirely is going to be the answer,” he said.
Arens has heard the argument that driverless equipment is more efficient than human laborers. But, after a lifetime of constantly making day-to-day equipment adjustments, he doesn’t trust that line of thought.
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