By Michele F. Mihaljevich
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The 2020 Purdue AgGrowBOT competition has been cancelled but the faculty advisor for the university’s team said he and the students will continue working on their project in hopes the event will return next year.
AgGrowBOT’s are autonomous machines designed to perform a specific function, such as planting, harvesting or soil sampling, said Roger L. Tormoehlen, a professor in Purdue’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering.
The competition – originally scheduled for May 7-8 – was called off due to the coronavirus pandemic. The program’s goals are to supply a competitive outlet for field-testing new innovations for agriculture and to provide a supportive environment for students to test their ideas and BOT builds, according to the university. The competition is open to collegiate teams from across the country.
Tormoehlen has served as faculty advisor for four years. In that time, Purdue’s 10-12 member teams have been working on a device that identifies and eliminates weeds in a field. The team uses an on-board camera system to take pictures of weeds and match them to photos of weeds in a computer database. The database includes pictures of weeds at various stages of development. Once the weeds are properly identified, they are either mechanically or chemically eliminated.
“We’re at about a 90 percent accuracy rate in identifying the weeds,” he noted. “It may make a mistake and not identify a weed. If the weeds are between the rows, it uses a rototiller-type device to get the weed. If it’s in the corn row, it applies a chemical.”
The team’s biggest challenges have been with speed control and steering, Tormoehlen said. The team uses a utility terrain vehicle (UTV) that needs to run about 4 miles per hour. To engage the transmission, the team has to give the UTV a little gas and then back off. “When to back off has been a huge struggle for the team,” he explained. “One might think it would be the weed identification, but that’s not been our biggest problem.”
The team was disappointed but understood Purdue’s decision to cancel the competition, Tormoehlen said. “We were just getting started (when the decision to cancel was announced) on building, constructing, programming,” he stated. “Then, with the coronavirus, things came to a screeching halt. Assuming they use a similar contest next year, we’ll be able to take what didn’t work this year, feed it to a new team and move forward. It wasn’t a total loss.”
Purdue’s teams have had students from the College of Agriculture, computer science, mechanical and biological engineering and liberal arts.
“Having a diverse team has been really beneficial,” he said. “I hope they realize that to solve these complex problems in society and agriculture, diversity of ideas and thoughts is important. They’re working with people of different backgrounds and opinions. I try to put few limitations on the teams. I really want them to think outside the box.”
Agriculture-related industries are interested in robotics, said Ronald Turco, professor and head of Purdue’s agronomy department. “The industry is kind of in this space now in a big way. They already know how to make a tractor run robotically. They’re interested in creativity in other areas. Our goal is to program a device, start it and go do something else. It can till, scout, search for weeds. There are all kinds of opportunities.”
The program gives students with an interest in agriculture but no agricultural background an opportunity to work in the industry, he said. “They want to work in an area helping to feed people. The program brings people into agriculture who wouldn’t necessarily show up here on their own. It shows how broad agriculture is and how it impacts different areas. There are a lot of people who work in agriculture who never go near a farm.”