Sure, GPS guided tractors are hot now, but they might be just part of a technology progression that takes ag equipment to total automation someday. That's right, we're talking about farmerless tractors, and it's not just some far-fetched, high-dollar dream. Check out the University of Illinois' latest low-budget garage project.

Army of ants

Agricultural engineers at the U of I have already developed several ag robots. “The robots are completely autonomous, directing themselves down corn rows, turning at the end and then moving down the next row,” said Tony Grift, University of Illinois agricultural engineer.

The long-term goal, he says, is for small, inexpensive bots to take on some of the duties now performed by large, expensive farm equipment. “Who needs 500 horsepower to go through the field when you might as well put a few robots out there that communicate with each other like an army of ants, working the entire field and collecting data?”

Ants? Grift says it's all part of the “smaller and smarter” approach to field equipment. In fact, one of the robots is called an “Ag Ant.” The foot-long bot is being designed to walk through crop rows on mechanical legs. Built for only $150, these cheap machines could someday be used to form a robotic strike force.

“We're thinking about building 10 or more of these robots and making an ecosystem out of them,” Grift says. “If you look at bees, they will go out and find nectar somewhere. Then a bee will go back and share this with the group, and the whole group will collect the food. Similarly, one robot might find weed plants. Then it would communicate this location to the other robots, and they would attack the plants together as a group.”

Down the row

In addition to the Ag Ant, Grift and Yoshi Nagasaka, a visiting scholar from Japan, developed a more high-tech robot for about $7,000. This robot guides itself down crop rows using a laser mounted in front to gauge the distance to corn plants.

Meanwhile, Grift and Matthias Kasten, an intern from Germany, have built yet another robot, this one for roughly $500. The robot is equipped with two ultrasonic sensors that bounce sound waves off of objects, as well as four of the cheap infrared sensors used in simple motion-detection sensors. These low-budget robots maneuver down crop rows using what Grift calls “the drunken sailor” approach. The robot drifts to the left, senses a corn plant, then steers off to the right, senses another plant and steers back to the left. As a result, the robot weaves its way between the rows.

Grift would like someday to see an experimental farm where all of the work is being performed by autonomous robots. And he said the logical place for such an ambitious farm would be Illinois. But right now, they're simply focusing on navigation skills for the robots. Eventually, these robots could be equipped to perform such duties as detecting disease, weeds or insects, sampling soil or even applying pesticides. “Instead of applying all of this spray that might drift everywhere, a robot could actually ‘spit’ chemical at the plant with great precision, using a very small amount of chemical,” Grift says. “We have all kinds of wild ideas.”