Swarm robotics could help farmers and ranchers

By Jennifer Whitlock 

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane! It’s…a swarm of robots?

Swarm robotics may be the future in agriculture, allowing farmers and ranchers to adjust the number of robots necessary to perform a variety of tasks.

“Agricultural robots, when used properly, can improve product quantity and quality while lowering the cost,” Dr. Kiju Lee, Texas A&M University associate engineering professor, said.

Lee is part of a multidisciplinary team of Texas A&M University System researchers working to establish a configurable, adaptive and scalable swarm (CASS) system of unmanned ground and aerial robots that will work collaboratively.

The work is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture National Robotics Initiative 3.0 program.

Other researchers participating in the project are Dr. Muthukumar Bagavathiannan, Texas A&M AgriLife Research weed scientist; Dr. Juan Landivar, center director at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Corpus Christi; Dr. John Cason, AgriLife Research peanut breeder; Dr. Robert Hardin, agricultural engineering assistant professor; Dr. Luis Tedeschi, AgriLife Research ruminant nutritionist; Dr. Dugan Um, associate engineering professor, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi; and Dr. Mahendra Bhandari, AgriLife Research crop physiologist.

They are developing what Lee called “technical and theoretical groundwork” for a swarm system, including a digital twin simulator for low- and high-fidelity simulations and a user-friendly interface for farmers.

Optimal applications of fertilizer, water, herbicides and more are possible through adaptive swarm robotics. She noted using smaller, unmanned machines can reduce soil compaction and better target herbicide-resistant weeds through nonchemical methods.

The main advantage of CASS systems is in its flexibility for different tasks and applications. She said even though there are currently swarm robotic systems available, they usually perform one specific task and cannot be adapted to different situations.

“Current trends in precision agriculture and smart farming mostly focus on larger machinery or a single or a small number of robots equipped and programmed to perform highly specialized tasks,” Lee said. “This project will serve as a critical pathway toward our long-term goal of establishing a deployable easy-to-use swarm robotic system that can serve as a universal platform for broad agriculture applications.”

There is much potential in the field of agricultural swarm robotics, although there are many challenges due to the individual nature of each operation.

Lee and the other researchers are ready to tackle those challenges to design systems that will work seamlessly for farmers and ranchers.

“Swarm robotics research itself has been largely confined to low-fidelity simulations and laboratory experiments. These rarely represent the intricacies of an agricultural field environment,” she said. “Also, human-swarm collaboration has not been extensively explored, and user-in-the-loop development and evaluation approaches are needed, in particular for target end-users—in our case, farmers.”

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