Agriculture Robotics Club aims to automate farming

Dean Kertai, Sam Dietrich, and Caleb Friedrick (L-R) pose with their AgBot. Photo - U of R Agriculture Robotics Club

Dean Kertai, Sam Dietrich, and Caleb Friedrick (L-R) pose with their AgBot. Photo – U of R Agriculture Robotics Club

U of R engineering students construct AgBot for international competition

On May 7, eleven teams from North American universities and private technology firms will converge at Gerrish Farms in Rockville, Indiana, to participate in the first annual AgBot Challenge, a competition to create an autonomous farming machine. Among the competitors will be the University of Regina Agriculture Robotics Club. The U of R ARC will be bringing their 26hp autonomous tractor, which is capable of driving, seeding, and fertilizing a field with almost no human input.

The Carillon sat down with fourth-year engineering students and club founders Sam Dietrich, Caleb Friedrich, and Joshua Friedrich to discuss their club, the competition, and the future of robot farming.

Originally planned as a final-year “capstone” project, the club was formed after the team learned about the AgBot competition, and their application was accepted in August. With the announcements of the 2017 and 2018 competition details, the team decided to have their group ratified as an official U of R club in order to gain URSU funding and continue competing beyond this year. Additional funding came from the Regina Engineering Students’ Society, and the U of R General Research Fund.

“There’s definitely a desire to expand the club next year,” said Dietrich, who has been giving class presentations to generate interest.

Through a partnership with Young’s Equipment, the group was able to secure a small 26hp tractor, and another sponsor, Seed Hawk, provided a custom-built two-row planter, which the group has been using for their small-scale testing. The club has since fitted the tractor with automated steering and pedals, as well as front and rear cameras and a LIDAR system, which uses a laser to measure distances.

“We can control the tractor via laptop perfectly,” said Dietrich, “but we’re working on autonomous navigation. Our goal is to use this small tractor and small planter and create a solution which would then be scalable to any size tractor.”

“It frees up the farmer from having to be one hundred percent focused on his tractor,” added Joshua Friedrich, pointing out the ease with which their software would allow control over multiple active machines. “The software is the main component of our design. That’s really the heart and soul of it.”

One of the judging categories for the AgBot competition is accuracy when seeding and fertilizing, calling for inch-specific measurements when laying rows half a mile long. When it comes to accuracy, however, the Regina team’s AgBot is no slouch. “We can lay seed within a centimetre accuracy,” said Dietrich, “and that’s something that’s really desired.”

The commercial applications of agriculture robotics tech are already being explored in the field (so to speak).

“Right now, we’re just looking at seeding and fertilizing,” Dietrich told the Carillon, “but [the technology] has already been applied to grain carts during harvesting. The applications of it are on all agricultural equipment.”

Dietrich also noted the importance of easy-to-use software when it comes to farming technologies.

“Any operator could pick it up and learn it inside out with a five-minute demo,” he said, “and that’s something you really want if this was to be scaled up. There’s definitely a need for it in the industry.”

Despite their success, none of the club’s members have a background in agriculture.

“I used to help my parents garden,” said Friedrich. “We’re pretty much learning everything as we go. We’ve written twelve thousand lines of code and programmed in five different languages.”

Testing a robot is a long and tedious process, and not without its harrowing moments. The club has been running tests in a local parking lot, instructing the robot to turn and follow hypothetical rows.

“Two times it lost communication with our ground station,” said Caleb Friedrich. “So it was just driving away by itself into the distance.”

“We wired in a kill switch,” added Joshua Friedrich.

After the competition in May, all three hope to continue working in multidisciplinary fields such as robotics, and have entertained a partnership offer from a local robotics startup.

“We’re thinking of releasing a hoverbike,” said Friedrich, when asked what was next for the club.

“We definitely have no plans for a hoverbike,” said Dietrich, with a laugh.

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