Research using new robotic technology improves agricultural techniques

Research using new robotic technology improves agricultural techniques

Photo Credits: STAVROS VOUGIOUSKAS / COURTESY

Professors and Ph.D., graduate and undergraduate students all work together to invent robots to automate crop production

It’s the year 2030 in the agricultural fields surrounding Davis. The fields look about the same, still dotted with orchards and fruit trees. But, alongside the people picking the fruits are machines, carrying trays of strawberries to and from trucks, as well as lifting people into the air to pick the highest, hardest-to-reach peaches. These newly developed aids are known as harvest assist robots. They greatly reduce the amount of manual labor and number of laborers needed to harvest fruit.

Stavros Vougioukas, a professor in the department of biological and agricultural engineering, runs a lab where research is conducted with robots, automation technologies and mechatronic technologies in relation to agriculture. With the goal of developing automated crop production to produce labor savings in the field or post-harvest, workers in the lab focus on creating these technologies for specialty crops.

Involved with Vougioukas’ research is Dennis Sadowksi, a research and development engineer in biological and agricultural engineering, as well as several Ph.D. students, graduate students and some undergraduate students completing internships. The lab also collaborates with other universities as well as specific growers. The researchers are able to test their equipment in the growers’ fields and receive feedback and advice.

“The main mission of our lab is try to make robotics to not replace but to be part of the labor,” said Zhenghao Fei, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in agricultural robotics who works in Vougioukas’ lab. “The agricultural work is also usually very intense and hard work so people would rather work somewhere else. Robots can replace that harder part and make our lives easier.”

According to Vougioukas, demographics show a labor shortage for farm work since there are not enough workers to meet the high demand. Developing technologies to aid in farmwork will help fix this problem.

“We are not really designing technologies to steal jobs away, we are covering a void because the supply is not there and will not be there even more,” Vougioukas said.

For pickers who will be replaced by the technologies, Vougioukas said they can always find work for different crops since not all foods can be harvested mechanically.

“Overall these technologies are not stealing jobs, they are making sure that we will always have fresh fruit and produce grown locally in safe and environmentally friendly ways, and this is what the technology does,” Vougioukas said. “It is not only picking, it is using less chemicals, less energy, doing it more safely. I think this is the bigger picture.”

According to Sadowski, the university is in the business of developing and using the latest research to develop the latest generation of machinery and robots. For agricultural robots, the process involves building a prototype, showing that it works properly and then a company pays for the licensing rights to manufacture it if they are interested in it.

“The university is not in the business of manufacturing things,” Sadowski said. “Our mission is to help the greater good, help the general public, not specific companies [that want to] get an edge over their competitors by tapping into our research.”

Funding for the research conducted in Vougioukas’ lab comes from government funds, private industries and occasionally specific companies looking for a new technology, according to Sadowski.

One of the main mobile robots the lab has been working on is a strawberry tray transporter. This robot will work alongside people by transporting full fruit trays to other locations and bringing back the empty trays to pickers. Currently, pickers must carry these trays, which wastes time and energy. Instead, this tray can do all the deliveries, according to Vougioukas.

“[Pickers] don’t like to stop picking, they make money when they pick, they don’t make money when they’re carrying trays of strawberries,” Sadowski said.

Another robot being developed is an automated orchard platform on which people can stand. According to Sadowski, the machine drives itself automatically, and it looks for fruit on the trees. It adjusts the heights of the pickers on the machine to match where the fruit is, so the workers do not have to reach high or bend low to pick it. The machine drives itself through the orchard at slow speeds, allowing workers to pick apples or peaches and dump them into large bins. Like the strawberry tray transporters, this machine also carries the full fruit bins, drops them off and then returns the empty bins so people do not have to do the hard manual labor.  

The strawberry decapping machine is another robot that the lab has developed. This machine automatically removes stems off of strawberries, which previously had to be done by hand. This machine is already being commercialized by a company in California. According to Vougioukas, either this year or next year it will be a commercial product.

“This is applied research, but hopefully in the next few years some of it will be out there,”  Vougioukas said. “Of course it’s also not just my lab, there are other places working on the research. This has been going on for decades and now you see some machines coming out. It’s not always very fast because going from a concept to a prototype takes some time.”

According to Sadowski, researchers in the lab face many challenges and technologies often fail, since what they are designing are new and unique concepts. Because of this, the lab must test and make alterations to the robots all the time.

“It is a very challenging job,” Sadowski said. “Here it’s like, you have to get inspired and have some brilliant brainstorm in order to solve a problem because farmers have been trying to solve some of these problems for hundreds of years.”

The biggest difficulties arise from these machines being used in a variety of outdoor environments, according to Fei.

“I think the most difficult part is that the agricultural environment is an ecological environment, so there are very high variation among different plants and different seasons,” Fei said. “There’s not like a controlled environment inside a factory, so when we do our algorithms, we can not too much rely on some artificial structure. We have to let our system be more intelligent and more general for the different environments.”

However, according to seventh-year Ph.D. student in agricultural robots Rajkishan Arikapudi, all these challenges become worth it when the robotic system is successful.

“We could foresee that the system could be used in the orchards as a real prototype that could be turned into a harvester soon,” Arikapudi said. “That’s the good part of seeing the efficiencies and the throughputs that the system could achieve.”

According to Sadowski, pretty much everyone will benefit from the research conducted in Vougioukas’ lab.

“Those who will benefit include the growers of fruits and vegetables, the processors, the people who have to work in the fields and pick and ultimately the consumer who will be able to continue to get their fresh fruits and vegetables at reasonable prices,” Sadowski said. “If you can’t harvest the fruit because you can’t find pickers, [fruits and vegetables] just are not going to be available or they will have to be imported from another place. They’re going to be much more expensive or not as fresh. Just about everybody is going to benefit from what we do.”

Written By: Margo Rosenbaum — features@theaggie.org