Cross a John Deere with a Roomba, and you get this crop-monitoring robot

terrasentia farm robot girish chowdhary  professor of agricultural engineering
L. Brian Stauffer
L. Brian Stauffer

Farms are a hotbed for automation. Robots, drones, and artificial intelligence have been assisting in agriculture for years and 2017 showed they could farm an acre and a half of barley, from planting to tending and harvesting, without a human stepping foot on the field.

Now there is a small but robust robot that could take care of the more tedious agricultural tasks. It’s called TerraSentia and the four-wheeled robot developed by engineers at the University of Illinois boasts a variety of sensors that can monitor and transmit crop data in real time. It won’t take full autonomy over a farm but is designed to serve as a little cog in a bigger machine.

“TerraSentia is a small, ultra-compact autonomous robot that can go through plots of crop and determine which plants are doing better than others,” Girish Chowdhary, an agricultural biological engineer at the University of Illinois who designed TerraSentia, told Digital Trends. “It has great utility for breeders who are trying to differentiate between different genotypes of plants. Using this robot, they can determine which variety of plants are doing better for a given environment. Currently, this is all done manually but TerraSentia augments that manual labor to not only get things done quickly but at a higher quality, to keep all of that data available to the breeders.”

TerraSentia is just over a foot wide and weighs in at 24 pounds, making it lightweight enough to traverse a field without seriously damaging crops. With its sensors, the robot monitors plant health by looking at things like growth rate and coloration. Its sensors are also designed to be flexible and customizable to suit the needs of the breeder and growers alike.

“Different people have different requirements,” Chowdhary said. “We’re trying to make the robot teachable so that people can teach it things that they care about. To begin, at the university we’ve taught it to count corn and estimate the width of plants. … The idea is that it can do other things over time, such as disease detection and detection of pests.”

Currently, the robot can cover an 80-acre field in about a day. As such, Chowdhary hopes TerrSentia can offer a “scale neutral” technology that can offer a small-sized solution for work on farms both big and small. The more land that needs to be covered, the more robots to do the job.

The robot is available for $5,000 through Chowdhary’s company, EarthSense.