Are Robots the Future of Sustainable Farming?

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Photo credit: University of Illinois

Field robots under study at the University of Illinois carry great promise to weed fields from the point of crop emergence to crop canopy, when crops grow large enough to shade the soil and overpower yield-robbing weeds.

“We are trying to create equipment that can make sustainable farming possible and profitable,” says Girish Chowdhary, the project’s principal investigator and an assistant professor in the university’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.

Researchers continue to improve the robot’s coverage area and fine-tune its artificial intelligence. Part of that machine learning includes knowing the difference between a young corn plant and a vast spectrum of weed types nearby.

This research surfaces at a challenging time when certain weed species have developed resistances to common herbicide treatments, some of which also face health disputes. Meanwhile, the autonomous technology carries the potential to mitigate labor shortages and costs for family farms, especially if the robot’s cost per acre can match or beat that of herbicide application expenses.

“The labor gap needs to be filled for us to go to the next generation of farming,” Chowdhary says.

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