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Idaho Researchers See Growing Opportunity for RFID-enabled Robot

The team is integrating an Impinj UHF reader and a variety of sensors into its IdaBot prototype, which is designed to help specialty crop growers reduce labor costs and increase productivity.
By Nathaniel Prince

The team opted to use ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) Gen 2 RFID tags due to their low cost and profile, as well as the fact that they are passive and have a wide enough range. It is anticipated that the tags' long range could potentially cause issues with undesired reads that will have to be rectified through the use of ranging algorithms. They chose an Impinj RS2000 reader development board, Griffin explains, because it was easy to integrate with the robot's system hardware.

"I anticipate two challenges for the RFID system: (1) determining the range to the tag for the purpose of applying chemicals and (2) separating reads from tags that are located on an adjacent trellis row from those located on the row in which the robot is located," Griffin says. "Eventually, we plan to test various ranging algorithms published in the research literature that use the amplitude and phase of the signal received from the tag. If we can determine the distance to the tag with resolution of a few feet, we will be able to both turn on the chemical sprayer at the right time and throw out stray reads from tags located on adjacent trellis rows."

During field-tests at Williamson Orchards & Vineyards, the IdaBot sported two UHF reader antennas and hauled a sprayer.
The robot could be used in tandem with a drone fitted with a multi-spectral camera; a computer program that determines how much spray a plant needs would process images from that camera. This, combined with the fact that the spraying mechanism allows for greater precision than what could be achieved with indiscriminate spraying, means that farmers would require smaller amounts of chemicals and that the spraying's environmental footprint is lessened. A program that uses images to estimate the amount of fruit on a tree is also in the works. This would assist farmers in pricing their produce, and in determining how much shipping material they would need.

The team is field-testing the IdaBot at Williamson Orchards & Vineyards and Bitner Vineyards, located in Caldwell. Two UHF reader antennas have been mounted on the IdaBot for the tests, but they have not been integrated with the robot's platform as of yet. The device also has a sprayer that does not yet contain the valves necessary to control the spray. The team hopes that by the end of 2017, the robot will be able to autonomously navigate a grape trellis row and apply chemicals to the correct vines. Assuming that the design process can be streamlined to allow for manufacturing in large quantities, Griffin estimates that a no-frills IdaBot would cost roughly the price of a pickup truck, making it a feasible investment for many farmers.

"At this point, we are focused on prototyping our robot for research purposes," Griffin states. "We do not have a timeline for the commercialization of the IdaBot."

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