At the first-ever agBot Challenge held in Rockville, Ind., more than 1,000 attendees were given a chance to see just how far autonomous ag technology has come — and how far is still has to go.

Ten different design teams competed in the event held on May 5-6, which challenged each to build an unmanned, “robotic” planter able to follow programmed coordinates through a field and send real-time information on down pressure, seeding and fertilizing rates back to the remote operator.

Among the operational objectives for each team’s model were precision planting observation methods, weather data influence decision making, return to docking and loading sensors for seed and fertilizer, connectivity and successful real-time observation and accuracy of data — storage, analytics and real-time application.

Each of the teams provided a presentation with details of their work and revealed components of their machines to a panel of 4 judges. The 3 person team of industrial systems engineering students from the University of Regina in Sask., took first place and received a $50,000 grant for their machine, a self-guided autonomous robot designed to plant 12 rows of corn, each a half mile long.

Placing second and earning a $30,000 grant was a joint team from Purdue University and South Newton High School in Kentland, Ind., which developed a system compatible with any 3-point loader attachment, modified and augmented with connected planting technology.

Third place and a $10,000 grant was a tie between Muchowski Farms for its automated hybrid electric cart, and Pee Dee Precision Ag, a small independent team of four hobbyists based in Latta, S.C. The Pee Dee team designed a 2,500 pound, ground-based drone, called Cricket One, with an 18 horsepower diesel engine with hydraulic controls and a top speed of around 10 mph. The machine was fitted with two Case IH 1050 planter row units with Precision Planting vSet Select row control system and 60 gallons of combined seed capacity.

“From a precision farming perspective, we’re looking at maintaining the effectiveness of current planters while trying to do away with the driver and having to hitch an implement up behind a tractor,” says Jerry Martin II, Pee Dee Precision Ag’s team leader. “There will be a fair amount of programming for field drones required, even for something very simply designed. There may end up being some liability attached to how the drones are programmed so a service industry may crop up around that.”

The 2016 agBot Challenge was the first event in a planned 3-year series, each one targeting a different farm management need that student teams and entrepreneurs have to solve.

— Ag Equipment Intelligence, June 2016