Poop sensors, drones, and robots: Automation at the farm

At first, the horse that greeted press attendees at an Oct. 20 occasion at Mount Vernon regarded decidedly analog. However as a Virginia Tech professor turned Mikey round, an uncommon little bit of know-how got here into view: a small field hooked up to a wrap round his tail.

The use case concerned poop.

“We’re in the center of the knowledge revolution,” mentioned Robin White, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech’s Division of Animal and Poultry Sciences and its Middle for Superior Innovation in Agriculture, earlier than explaining that this pod included sensors to detect the telltale motions of the horse going to the toilet.


“It looks like it could be an invasion of Mikey’s privateness,” she joked. However manure management issues at farms, the place extra knowledge may assist to scale back their fertilizer functions and restrict runoffs into close by waterways.

White subsequent pointed to a much less apparent sensor hooked up to his bridle that recorded Mikey’s exercise and coronary heart price.

“We’ll know when he’s resting and consuming and when he’s maybe enjoying in the discipline along with his associates,” he mentioned. “We will enhance administration of their well being.”

Low-stress handling may pay greater proceeds in cows and different “meals animals,” as White put it, however horses make for simpler beta testers: “They’re so used to having gadgets hooked up to them.”

The smart-farming demo then moved open air to a discipline close to a recreation of the 16-sided barn George Washington designed to permit extra environment friendly threshing of wheat by horses treading on sheaves to separate the heads of grain.

Virginia Tech determined to stage these reveals at Mount Vernon not simply due to the photogenic surroundings, however due to its historical past of agricultural innovation underneath Washington, who was an early adopter of such practices as crop rotation and composting. Washington, nevertheless, may conduct these experiments with out having to pay the wages of enslaved employees, a truth made plain in today’s exhibits at Mount Vernon.

A couple of ft from a row of kale in that discipline, a DJI Phantom 4 Pro quadcopter drone sat subsequent to a four-wheeled Clearpath Husky “discipline analysis robotic” with a Lidar sensor mounted on high.


Hasan Seyyedhasani, an assistant professor of Automation and Linked Applied sciences in Virginia Tech’s College of Plant and Environmental Sciences, defined how two drones may very well be higher than one in an agricultural context.

Whereas farmers have been utilizing drones to verify their crops for years now, his imaginative and prescient is to have robots working collaboratively. For example, aerial {hardware} like the DJI drone may use their coloration or thermal cameras and highly-accurate real-time kinematic positioning GPS to offer intelligence for the Husky robotic on the floor, serving to it to collect extra up-close knowledge and carry out duties like pruning or harvesting.

“We fuse these two sensing programs collectively to gather complete data,” he mentioned. “Hopefully in the subsequent 5 years we will have an actual automated farm.”

However there’s nonetheless loads of room for enchancment in simply the data-gathering a part of drone agriculture. One other Virginia Tech researcher famous over electronic mail that he’s seen promising outcomes from utilizing a DJI drone geared up with 4K cameras to examine grapes at the college’s research winery in Winchester, Virginia.

“Even in my small vineyards, I used to be capable of finding some data that might have been missed if I didn’t fly my drone,” he mentioned. However he complained that the software program he’d bought stored yielding misaligned photographs and wanted higher documentation.

Advancing to a state of agricultural automation wherein drones lead different drones would require tackling many different issues. Battery life could also be the greatest amongst them; Seyyedhasani mentioned the Husky solely lasts two to a few hours on a cost.

Bandwidth could be an excellent greater impediment in lots of agricultural settings. A study launched in October by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, a Wilmette, Illinois, non-profit, cited 2019 U.S. Department of Agriculture data displaying 22% of farms have been restricted to Digital Subscriber Line, a gradual phone-based know-how; 18% relied on smartphones; 3% nonetheless limped alongside on dial-up entry; 18% had no web connectivity at all.

However the promise of utilizing drones and robots to amplify a farmer’s senses—in impact, returning a hands-on stage of care to industrial-scale farming—stays actual. As White put it: “We have now the alternative to depart these animals in an setting as pure as potential and nonetheless perceive their day.”