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Robotic device for picking apples being developed at WSU. Photo: WSU.
Robotic device for picking apples being developed at WSU. Photo: WSU.

If agriculture conjures images in your mind of a farmer sweating atop an old tractor or rusty sprinklers watering crops, it’s time to rethink that impression.

More than a century after machines began to transform farms, the industry is going digital with “agtech” and “precision agriculture,” and Washington state — with leadership from Washington State University in Pullman — is helping to show the way.

“This is a huge developing area globally and in the state,” said Alexis Holzer, assistant director for economic development at WSU. “People are looking to Washington because of the sheer number of crops we grow here.”

The state is No. 1 in the variety of crops being grown, Holzer said. And given the region’s strength and experience in technology and aerospace, Washington is a natural incubator for agtech.

Professor Qin Zhang, director of WSU’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems. Photo: WSU.

The really hot areas of development are in mechanizing and automating farming activities and bringing a high degree of precision to the industry, said Qin Zhang, director of WSU’s aptly named Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems.

That includes creating a robotic arm that can pick apples and pears, and deploying drones to collect crop images, frighten off thieving birds and other laborious tasks. The work, while fascinating from a purely technical standpoint, is increasingly important.

“To get enough food to feed society continues to be a challenge,” Zhang said. Back when most of humanity were farmers, “one person could hardly feed one additional person, and now that one person can feed 200. What is the difference? Technology.”

Last month, WSU helped organize the third-annual Precision Farming Expo, an event that drew farmers, tech companies, researchers and others from around the country to share ideas and developments in the field.

WSU assistant professor Sindhuja Sankaran. Photo: WSU.

Presenters included WSU assistant professor Sindhuja Sankaran, who is leading research that analyzes crop status using specialized cameras that can take images in the near-infrared and visible spectrums. The data can be used to detect a variety of conditions, including which plants are producing the most desirable fruits and are therefore best for propagating, if grapes are water-stressed and identifying and quantifying diseased crops.

The idea is to install the cameras in fields or deploy them on tractors or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones to survey crops and report their condition without requiring people to walk the fields and take stock.

“We talk to the growers to understand their major issues,” Sankaran said. “There is a lot of interest and sometimes the farmers are investing their own research money buying drones and cameras. They are pretty excited and optimistic.”

One of the persistent hurdles in this field, said Zhang, has been funding. In areas such as health care, defense and the auto industry, there’s a lot of demand for new technology and the dollars to pay for it. In agriculture, that’s less the case. As a result, many of the researchers take technology developed for other industries and adapt it to farming.

“To borrow technology is a lower risk of failure and lower cost,” Zhang said.

Researchers with Washington State University's Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems are working on technology to make farming easier and more efficient. Photo: WSU.
Researchers with Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems are working on technology to make farming easier and more efficient, including devices to mechanically harvest apples. Photo: WSU.

Manoj Karkee, an assistant professor with the WSU center, is doing research on the use of UAVs to frighten birds that eat cherries, blueberries and other fruit ready for picking. Currently the most effective deterrent is to drape nets over the fruit, a labor-intensive proposition. The hope is that drones offer a cheaper, easier and effective scare tactic.

The use of drones “may not be a novel idea, but it is a unique challenge for growers here,” Karkee said.

The researcher is also doing work on a robotic picking machine and another device to shake fruit from trees and catch it.

WSU assistant professor Manoj Karkee. Photo: WSU.
WSU assistant professor Manoj Karkee. Photo: WSU.

The picking machine needs to solve multiple problems. Using camera “eyes” it has to recognize the ripe fruit, finding apples and pears behind leaves and other fruit, and sometimes growing at odd angles. Using arms and hands it needs to reach the fruit and gently pick it and place it in a bin without damaging it. And it has to be quick.

People can pick as fast as one apple per second, while the fastest robots tested in orchards can do it in four to 10 seconds. The WSU group’s robot has it down to about five seconds and Karkee thinks they might reach three seconds soon.

And farmers are starting to prune their orchards in a way that could help boost the robot’s speed, growing trees that are planar, so their branches stretch more two dimensionally instead of reaching in every direction.

“In tree fruit production labor has been, and will be more, uncertain,” Karkee said. “The goal here is to develop this kind of automated robot technology, but we understand this is a really challenging problem.”

Zhang is developing technology to help crop pickers as well, in his case a robotic machine called a “bin dog.” The autonomously functioning device, which is a sort of modified forklift, can be deployed to orchards to exchange bins that are full of picked fruit with empty bins. The bin dog prototype is showing promise, Zhang said, and would ultimately need a commercial partner to manufacture them.

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Holzer, who works on the economic development angle, also sees opportunities for tech company partnerships to develop software products and services that will help farmers manage and interpret the crop data they’re increasingly able to collect.

“We need to figure out how we connect the ag with the tech community. There is a huge valley — they don’t know what the other does,” Holzer said. “There’s a lot of learning that we have to do on both sides.”

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