Tarzan the Robot will swing over the heads of farmers to monitor their crops

Tarzan is lord of the jungle, but according to some fascinating work being done by a team at Georgia Institute of Technology, he may also be lord of our robotics labs — and perhaps our farms, too.

That’s because the team has developed Tarzan the Robot, a robot capable of traversing a high-wire in a manner not dissimilar to the way Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hero swings through the trees. The energy-efficient robot’s unusual form of locomotion was actually modeled on the movement of sloths, and is designed in such a way that it might one day be able to benefit from its high-flying position by being powered directly by the sun.

Unlike a lot of innovative robotics projects, however, the team behind this particular robot isn’t just developing it for open-ended research. Instead, the researchers have a very specific real-world use case for it.

“Our first immediate application is for something called high-throughput phenotyping, which is a method of experimentally evaluating plant attributes for different breeds to evaluate [things like] drought tolerance,” Jonathan Rogers, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, told Digital Trends. “We plan on deploying this system at a farm field at the University of Georgia where they do phenotyping, which is a very labor intensive process that we hope to better automate. Moving forward, we see this as a key capability that can be deployed across the agricultural sector.”

The idea of using such a visually outlandish robot for agriculture may sound like overkill, but as Rogers pointed out, a lot of the more traditional solutions simply don’t work all that well.

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“A few years back, some colleagues and I were exploring ways for small, persistent monitoring robots to traverse crop fields,” he continued. “These robots had to survive and move throughout the field over long periods of time without human intervention. There was no easy solution to this problem, as wheeled robots were likely to get stuck, and flying robots typically have flight times only in the tens of minutes. So we developed [this] so-called brachiating robot, or swinging robot, that can traverse elevated wires above the plant rows. Many agricultural settings already have some type of elevated wire, or they can be easily installed. Our robot can swing along a wire, or between wires, allowing it to monitor an entire field using sensors installed between the arms.”

These sensors can then collect data and transmit it wirelessly back to a base station for processing and analysis. When it comes to monitoring and inspection, the hope is that farmers will be able to inspect plants from their home computer, rather than having to physically walk the field.

Next up, the team plans to make the Tarzan the Robot more energy efficient by optimizing the way its swing motor operates, and using solar panels so it won’t have to worry about recharging. They also want to improve its design to make it more survivable in outdoor environments, so it can be left outdoors among the plants for an entire growing season.

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