September 21, 2014 – No part of our highly technological economy today is free of being rethought by applying automation in the form of robots. In the past I have written about the use of field robots in agriculture. But these were largely university projects still in the laboratory. But now a new company in Minnesota is turning laboratory experiments into a commercial agricultural robot aimed at corn farmers. The company has created Rowbot, designed as a automated fertilizing machine for now but with plenty more applications to come.
Rowbot, the company, sees its mission as one of bringing robotic solutions to the most pressing problems in agriculture. In this case Rowbot solves a number of challenges for corn growers. Today corn covers 159 million hectares (almost 400 million acres) globally. In 2010 American farmers produced 316 million metric tons of the crop at an average of 9.6 metric tons per hectare (more than 23.6 tons per acre). These numbers are quite impressive when compared to average production elsewhere on the planet.
Small enough to easily travel between planted rows of corn, Rowbot reduces the amount of fertilizer farmers use by dispensing it at the right time in the right amounts. The timing for corn is critical because once corn plants get too tall to run a tractor through the field farmers may miss applying fertilizer when it can be most beneficial. But with Rowbot the plants are undisturbed because of its small form factor. And because it provides the nitrogen directly in what is referred to as “side dressing” it eliminates potential overfeeding and nitrogen runoff which leads to polluting of local ponds, rivers and lakes.
Watch a demo of Rowbot in action. It uses both GPS and LIDAR to navigate with great precision and little in the way of operator intervention. It handles two corn rows at a time without collateral damage to growing plants. It collects data during operation which the farmer can then analyze to determine how to improve crop yields. Applying fertilizer using a tractor-attached applicator is less exact and often leads to crop damage to the top of the corn plants which reduces yield.
Rowbot’s first practical test this summer involved fertilizing 20.2 hectares (50 acres) of corn at a cost of under $25.00 per hectare ($10 per acre) not including fertilizer. The smaller footprint of Rowbot means arable fields can be exploited to the maximum especially when you consider that future iterations of Rowbot will be multifunctional including doing chores like cover seeding. Cover Seeding refers to seeding of fields with a cover crop after harvest to restore field fertility and stabilize soil before winter.