Researchers at Idaho-based Northwest Nazarene University (NNU) have created a prototype RFID-enabled robotic system that can carry out farming tasks. Josh Griffin and Duke Balanon, both engineering professors at NNU, are heading a program to develop what they call the IdaBot. The professors launched the project in 2015, with financial support provided by NNU, as well as more than $80,000 in funding from the Idaho State Department of Agriculture's Specialty Crop Grant Program. The project's team also includes two undergraduate students: Richie Grindstaff (a senior engineering student) and Lucas Pomeroy (a junior engineering student).
"The goal of the IdaBot project is to reduce labor costs for specialty crop growers, ease implementation of precision agriculture techniques in specialty crops, increase the productivity of specialty crop laborers and ease the labor shortage strain for specialty crop growers," explains Griffin, citing grapes and onions as examples of specialty crops.
The team added a variety of sensors: GPS for rough localization of the robot, an inertial measurement unit (IMU) and sensor fusion chip to determine its orientation, motor encoders to measure how far the device has traveled, and a light detection and ranging (LIDAR) system to provide collision avoidance.
With tank-esque treads for mobility, the IdaBot could eventually perform a wide range of agricultural jobs. However, the developers' first objective is to hitch the IdaBot to a sprayer and have the robot control the sprayer's application of fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals in vineyards located in Caldwell, Idaho. After sticker-like RFID tags have been affixed to each vine, the robot can be programmed to spray whatever configuration of vines the farmer wants. The IdaBot can then make its way through the vineyard, using the signal from the tags to determine what vine it is currently next to and whether or not it should be sprayed.
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