Mars to Manawatu for robotic rover project

An AgResearch team has taken some extra-terrestrial inspiration to help take the pain out of intensive pasture management.

Inspired by NASA’s Mars rover project, the team at AgResearch in Palmerston North and Lincoln have built a paddock robot they’ve named the Agri-Rover.

The Agri-Rover is designed to be a small, fully-autonomous rover that will automatically undertake multiple tasks around farms day and night.

Scientist Dr Andrew Manderson led the project, which was developed with funding from the AgResearch Curiosity Fund, a seed fund that enables AgResearch staff to investigate ideas that could benefit the pastoral sector.

“We started this project in 2012 and presented the first prototypes at the FLRC conference back in February,” says Dr Manderson.

“We’ve come a long way since then, and have had a functional rover out in the paddock since April.”

The Agri-Rover concept is for an all-weather rover that deploys from a central base station, independently navigates to a paddock, goes under two-wire fences and gates, slowly but progressively traverses the paddock while taking measurements and treating patches, then automatically returns to the base station for recharging and further deployment.

“This works in all weather, all of the time, quietly going about its tasks without creating extra jobs for the farmer. It’s designed to be easy to operate, and will report results as needed to a cell phone or computer.

“Always in the back of our mind was keeping it affordable, which is often a sticking point with new farm technologies,” says Dr Manderson.

Now they have built a rover that can operate successfully under farm conditions, the team are focusing on how it will be used to improve farm production and reduce environmental impacts.

“First and foremost is to equip the rover for pasture measurement, to provide real-time feedback on paddock covers, feed wedges, and possibly even pasture quality.  This is all about quick, accurate information for real-time decision making, without having to spend any time collecting it.

“At the same time we’re looking to measure soil properties for precision fertiliser application, mapping compaction zones, and creating soils maps for variable-rate irrigation.  We are developing the rover to do as many tasks as possible to make it as useful as possible.”

The team are also testing systems to automatically treat pasture and fresh cow urine at the patch scale. By programming the rover to drive over every square foot of a paddock, it could be useful for the selective identification and treatment of individual urine patches, and selective identification and treatment of individual weeds.

“Locating and treating urine patches is the single biggest challenge we have set ourselves,” says Dr Manderson.

“The level of required GPS technology is currently very expensive, and while we can tow a sizeable spray unit, it is too big a drain on current battery life. Targeting individual weeds is even more of a challenge.  But we’re working with some crack technicians to solve these challenges.”

Dr Manderson says there are many possibilities for the rover, and hopefully the list of tasks will grow as the group gets more feedback from industry.

“For example, other scientists are developing robots to herd cows in for milking,” he says.

“Likewise, we can put a camera on this thing so farmers can use it as a remotely controlled rover that they can use to check things on their farm, such as keeping a 24 hour watch on springers at calving time.”

Farmer input and feedback has already been instrumental in keeping the rover design effective, affordable and robust.

“It’s a battery and solar powered unit running four 240v gear motors that cranks along at about 5km/h, goes up and down 15-20 degree slopes, and spins on a dime,” says Dr Manderson.

“It’s tough as well. We accidently dropped it off the back of a ute and it fell on its lid, we just turned it over and away it went again. Although 5km/h might seem slow, it’s a medium walking pace, but this thing is designed to independently chug around all of the time so speed isn’t really all that important.”

The team behind the project are now talking to local farmers to identify areas where the rover could be of use on-farm, anyone who would like to help shape the future of the project can contact: enquiries@agresearch.co.nz