Unique robotic planter challenge gains steam, shows promise

Unique robotic planter challenge gains steam, shows promise

Robotics challenge: Plant without people? And do it by next spring? Really?

Something is going on in university labs and private workshops across the country right now that Buck Rogers couldn't have even imagined. Teams of students or tech experts are responding to a challenge. Their goal is to build a robotic planter capable of planting seed without people being near it. They only have until May 7, 2016, to reach their goal.

Related: Ag robots on the scene: Who says your farm job can't be replaced?

Planed by planter or robot: A competition to develop robotic planters could make it tough to know someday if corn was planted by a traditional planter or a robotic planter

It's the 2016 agBOT Challenge sponsored by an organization called airBridge. So far, nine teams have accepted the challenge. Their assignment is to develop an efficient, unmanned crop seeder. But it has to do more than just plant. Competition rules say it must be capable of "planting two varieties of seed over half-mile long rows."

In addition, competitors must "develop hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces to enable their robotic technology and further propel the field of agriculture and robotics." The robotic planter must "provide real-time data and utilize a mobile-tracking antenna."

These will not be run-of-the-mill planters, even by today's standards. The planter must be able to plant two rows at a time, and a total of 12 rows, according to an assigned set of GPS coordinates. It must be able to apply fertilizer, and operate between 3.5 and 10 miles per hour.

The robot planter also must dock and load two varieties of seed, weigh them and send data to the operator, located elsewhere. It must be able to dock and load starter fertilizer as well.

Information it needs to relay to the operator includes down pressure on press wheels, net seed weight, seed rate, fertilizer weight and rate, speed, heading and position. Teams must also design their planters so that they can intervene in progress and control such things as seed rate, fertilizer rate, downpressure, heading and speed.

Related: Have You Seen the Rowbot?

It's a tall order. The nine teams working on the challenge include Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Purdue University, Virginia Tech University, Michigan State University, Ohio State University, University of Regina, Case Western Reserve University, a joint team on MESATech, Grit Robotics and Muschowski Farms and Pee Dee Precision Ag.

The winning team collects $50,000. The competition takes place May 7 in Rockville, Ind. Stay tuned for details. Second place gets a cash prize of $30,000, and third place takes home $20,000.

Awards will come from sponsors. Sponsorship opportunities are still available.

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