Video of the week: Tarzan the farming robot

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Georgia Tech team develops swinging robot to monitor crops

World population growth may have halved since its peak in the 1960s, but the number of people in the world is still increasing and they all need feeding. Increasing automation in agriculture is helping to meet this challenge, and the Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines (IRIM) at the Georgia Institute of Technology is developing robots that its researchers hope will be able to save farmers from laborious fieldwork in monitoring the condition of their crops.

The latest addition to their armoury was designed after a sloth, but moves more like a gibbon. The two armed robot is designed to hang from a cable strung the length of the line of crops, and move by brachiating – swinging from hand to hand – along the cable. Its sensor platform, housed at the junction of the arms, can then take photos and collect other data continuously. They are also able to switch from one parallel cable to another, allowing them to cover an entire suitably-rigged field.

Mechanical engineer Jonathan Rogers explains that the design was intended to help the robot to operate in the field for long periods of time and move around without human help while consuming a very small amount of energy.

"This is the best way to keep something out of the way and off the ground without having to have something in the air all the time," he said. It could not only send data back from analysis so that the crops’ nutrient needs could be assessed, he said, it could even conceivably deliver those nutrients, completely automating crop maintenance.

The sloth was chosen as the model for the robot, which has been named Tarzan, because it is a very energy efficient animal, and Rogers said that the robot should be equally efficient. The goal is for the robot to be completely solar powered, he said. "It could literally live outside for months at a time.” The robot is being tested in a four-acre soybean field outside Athens, Georgia, which is normally home to plant geneticists. See Tarzan in action below.