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UGA scientists develop 'row-bot'
By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

An orange sun peers over the trees as green crops shimmer with morning dew. In the distance, cows are mooing. A farmer sets his coffee mug on the dashboard of his pickup, boots up a laptop computer and releases his team of robots.

It may sound strange now. But in the not-too-distant future, unmanned vehicles could do a lot of work on the farm, say two scientists with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. They already have a prototype.

The UGA "Row-bot" is a computer-guided vehicle that can perform many farm tasks: check the health of plants and fields, monitor cattle, spray for bugs.

Autonomous vehicle

It's the mechanical brainchild of Glen Rains, an agricultural engineer, and Stuart Pocknee, program coordinator with the National Environmentally Sound Production Agriculture Laboratory in Tifton, Ga.

"What we'd like to develop from this is an autonomous vehicle that could be fitted with various sensors and equipment that could be used to work in and remotely view a field," Rains said.

The UGA Row-bot now is about the size of a stripped-down mid- sized car. It stands about 3 feet off the ground on four wheels. Guided by Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)technology, it has various sensors to control and monitor its movements. It's connected to a computer network and can be accessed through the Internet.

Labor-saving scout

Depending on the size of the farm, a team of these row-bots could be networked together and programmed to scout fields for insect or disease damage, take soil samples or other data and report it back in real time to a farmer on a computer, Rains said. Or, it could return to a shed, where a farmer could download the data for analysis.

Using wireless technology, a farmer with mobile Internet access could connect with his row-bots and see what they see through a camera attached to them.

"A farmer could be in another field or on vacation and check on his crop," Rains said.

It could be a labor-saving tool for farmers, Pocknee said. The row-bots could be equipped with sprayers or other field equipment and sent into fields to work. And they wouldn’t care if the sun went down. Using the GPS technology, they could work at night -- virtually 24-hours a day.

Farm tractor drivers shouldn't start looking for another line of work just yet, Pocknee said. But taking a few computer technology classes wouldn't hurt.

Or course, there are safety concerns, they say, when the immediate decision-making capability of a human driver is removed. But the row-bot could also eliminate human errors.

They envision a much smaller final row-bot, about the size of a riding lawnmower, for actual use on a farm. It would automatically shut down if it became disconnected from the network or encountered an object in a field it couldn't recognize. It would send a message of trouble to the farmer.

Farm-bots

Robots are already being used on some farms.

Some dairy farmers in Europe use them to milk their cows. And the practice is starting to take hold on U.S. dairies. Agribusiness companies are also looking into similar robot-like vehicles for row-crop farmers all over the world.

The agriculture industry has long been in the forefront of technological advances. The farm tractor was revolutionary when it replaced the mule-drawn rigs of the past. And genetically modified crops are now common.

The UGA scientists admit it may take a while for people to get used to farming robots. But like other advances, if robots can prove to be safe, practical, time- and cost-efficient farm tools, they could show up in fields sooner than you think.

(Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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