Taking stock of drones, robots in the fields

04/25/2014 09:33:00 AM
Mike Hornick

Mike Hornick, Staff WriterMike Hornick, Staff WriterI never expected to hear the phrase “terrestrial systems” in a discussion of agricultural technology. But then I heard Joe Wickham, founder of Robotic Harvesting LLC, say it.

If something’s terrestrial, it’s on the earth — as you’d expect in agriculture. Or just about anywhere. What’s the alternative? Extraterrestrial systems, perhaps?

It’s drones — or as most companies prefer to call them, unmanned aerial systems.

“Drones are a good example of one type of robot that’s been funded by the U.S. government and is really starting to catch on now for agricultural purposes,” Wickham said at a Western Growers Association Web seminar on robotics use in specialty crops.

“The situation with harvesters and other terrestrial systems (is that) the technology is running now but there’s not been a lot of capital investment.”

In March, RoboFlight Systems Inc. acquired Aerial Precision Ag, a manufacturer of drones (or systems).

RoboFlight uses the data provided, for example, to detect insect problems, project crop yields as they vary across acreage, or identify water issues.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which represents producers and users of drones and robotic gear, estimates 80% of the commercial drone market will eventually be in agriculture.

There should be fewer liability and privacy issues to sort out over sprawling ranch land than, say, Amazon will face in its stated goal of drone package delivery in cities. Or Google with its autonomous cars.

The agriculture scenario so far seems to be drones providing data to human beings, who then act on it.

But could the data, perhaps, be provided to machinery on the ground? Why do we have to be involved at all?

“Drones working with harvesters still need to be commercially proven,” Wickham said.

Some row crop machinery is designed with a concept of supervised autonomy — an oxymoron. The operator is not necessarily driving.

“He’s watching a movie or checking his stock portfolio,” said Tony Koselka, founder of Vision Robotics Corp.

“That’s what he’s really doing.”

Not for long. He’d better be ready to find another gig — or cash out that stock.

mhornick@thepacker.com

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