PITTSBURGH — Two groups of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute have received a total of $10 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to build automated farming systems.
One is for apple growers and one is for orange growers, but both are designed to improve fruit quality and lower production costs.
The systems use sensors on autonomous robotic vehicles or at fixed sites within the orchards to gather a multitude of data about tree health and crop status.
Robotic vehicles will be used to administer precise amounts of water or agricultural chemicals to specific areas or trees. The vehicles also will be used to automate routine tasks such as mowing between tree rows.
The projects were funded this fall through the department’s new Specialty Crop Research Initiative.
The Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops Program, led by Sanjiv Singh, research professor of robotics, received a four-year, $6 million grant to develop systems for the apple industry.
The Integrated Automation for Sustainable Specialty Crop Farming Project, led by Tony Stentz and Herman Herman of the Robotics Institute’s National Robotics Engineering Center, received a three-year, $4 million grant to develop systems for the citrus industry.
Both project grants will be matched dollar for dollar by industry, state governments and other funding sources.
Although Carnegie Mellon is not a university traditionally associated with agricultural research, the Robotics Institute’s Field Robotics Center has been involved in agricultural automation since the early ’90s and the engineering center has worked with agricultural equipment manufacturers since it opened in 1996.
Moreover, both organizations are experienced in managing research programs involving academic, industrial and governmental researchers working closely with end users.
The technologies developed will be applicable not only to apple and orange growers, but to producers of all kinds of tree fruits.
The Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops Program will work with apple growers in Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington and includes collaborators from Penn State, Washington State, Oregon State and Purdue universities as well as the USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Researchers will use a fleet of automated four-wheel vehicles that can perform multiple tasks, including tree monitoring and chemical spraying.
The National Robotics Engineering Center’s Integrated Automation for Sustainable Specialty Crop Farming Project will deploy a fleet of networked, unmanned tractors in the orange groves of Southern Gardens Citrus, one of Florida’s largest growers.
In addition to Southern Gardens Citrus, collaborators include researchers at the University of Florida, Cornell University and Deere & Co.
Harvesting remains one of the most labor-intensive operations at orchards, but it also is very challenging to automate because of demanding handling and cost requirements.
Both projects will investigate new designs for mechanical harvesters, including a vacuum-assisted device the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops Program will use for apple harvesting, but the emphasis will be on aiding human harvesters, rather than replacing them.