Crop monitoring “agribot” could revolutionise farming sector

A low-cost agribot capable of autonomously monitoring crops could revolutionise the agricultural sector, its developers have claimed. 

Professor Girish Chowdhary with the TerraSentia crop-scouting robot

Weighing just over 10 kg, the university’s TerraSentia robot is able to travel autonomously between crop rows using a variety of sensors to measure the traits of individual plants and transmitting the data in real time to an operator’s phone or computer. The team behind the robot are also developing algorithms to “teach” it to detect and identify common diseases, and measure traits such as plant and corn ear height, leaf area index and biomass.

“These robots will fundamentally change the way people are collecting and utilising data from their fields,” claimed project leader, Professor Girish Chowdhary.

University of Illinois plant biology specialist Prof Carl Bernacchi added that automating data collection and analytics has the potential to improve the breeding pipeline by unlocking the mysteries of why plant varieties respond in very different ways to environmental conditions.  Data collected by the crop-scouting robot could help plant breeders identify the genetic lineages likely to produce the best quality and highest yields in specific locations, he said.

“It will be transformative for growers to be able to measure every single plant in the field in a short period of time,” Bernacchi said. “Crop breeders may want to grow thousands of different genotypes, all slightly different from one another, and measure each plant quickly. That’s not possible right now unless you have an army of people – and that costs a lot of time and money and is a very subjective process.” Bernacchi added that a robot, or even a swarm of robots, could offer a low-cost and more efficient alternative to what is currently a highly labour intensive process.

Chowdhary anticipates a huge market for the agribot in both the developed world and the developing world, where subsistence farmers struggle with extreme weather conditions such as monsoons and harsh sunlight, along with weeds and pests.

Several major seed companies, US universities and overseas partners will shortly begin field testing 20 of the TerraSentia robots and the system, which is expected to cost less than $5,000, could become available in under three years.