The future of farming was on display at the agBOT Challenge in Parke County on Friday where teams showed off working prototypes of autonomous farming equipment.
The three-day challenge at Gerrish Farms just south of Rockville aims to push the conventions of farming and find ways to make the process more efficient and environmentally friendly.
Fourteen teams from around the world gathered for the competition with each vying for a piece of the $100,000 prize pool.
Steve Gerrish, founder of agBOT and owner of Gerrish Farms, said his work in the tech sector blended with the love for his 114-year old family farm led him to look for ways to increase the yield of his modest plot.
“There’s a divergence in farming today. You can be in commodity agriculture where you put together 3-to-5-to 10,000 acres or you can try to be self-reliant on the acreage you have,” Gerrish said. “So we have 500 to 600 acres here with all of our ground and we don’t really want a $400,000 tractor, it just doesn’t work on that kind of size.
“So we’re aiming to use automation to plant 24-hours a day with a small two-row planter to achieve the same thing others are doing in eight hours with a 12-row planter and not compact the soil with the great big equipment.”
And while using autonomous robots to till, plant, weed and harvest a crop may sound like science fiction, Gerrish says automation is already being used in a host of other applications.
“Most people are aware of cars becoming autonomous and getting comfortable with that, right?” Gerrish asked. “So if a car can drive down the road we can certainly drive a tractor back and forth in the same place every year.”
Beyond maximizing yield and minimizing man hours, Gerrish said many of the changes environmentalists have been clamoring for would be possible through automation as well.
“Look across the field and see how much is dirt and how much of it is weeds,” Gerrish said looking out over his recently planted field. “Why are we spraying the whole damn thing with chemicals when we just need to spray the weeds?”
“We could reduce chemical use by 85 percent and the general public would like that. But we need these kinds of tools and high-speed internet to achieve that.”
A team from Indiana State University attended the second day of the challenge, bringing with them a proof of concept — or model — of a machine they hope to build for next year’s event.
Graduate student Parker Kirby said the team is looking to build a four or six-wheeled modular platform that can be adapted to almost any farm-related task.
He said using computer vision, real-time kinematic positioning and sonar technologies would allow the autonomous vehicle to relay what it was seeing in the field to the farmer via a computer program.
Oscar Henriquez, an instructor in ISU’s electronics and computer engineering technology department, said it’s that kind of ingenuity that can help ensure a growing world population is well fed.
“In the future we going to have to feed way more people,” Henriquez said. “And with the ways that we’re farming now it’s not going to work out.”
He added that agriculture needs to embrace technology and embrace change much the way it did when shifting from manual horse and plow labor to the tractors and combines of today.
“Farming has kind of lagged behind the rush of the technological world,” Henriquez said. “It’s such an open area where we can create new things and incorporate new things like computer vision and computer learning. It’s only going to become more and more important to do so.”
And while the ISU team would have liked to compete with a more complete machine, its funding for the project came through a little more than a week ago.
They said with what they recently received and what they hope they can secure moving forward, the team will be able to field a working prototype next year incorporating what they’ve learned at this year’s agBOT.