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Agricultural Robotics: Flex-Ro Leads in Autonomous Farming
Nebraska Ag Connection - 06/05/2023

A significant stride has been made in autonomous farming at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with the seeding of a no-till field entirely through agricultural robots. Backed by a substantial grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Flex-Ro robot represents cutting-edge research into autonomous planting.

Several agricultural companies have dabbled in autonomous tractor technology, but the Flex-Ro stands apart in its ability to perform various field operations with minimal changes to its hardware and software. The robot, which debuted in fields in 2019, is remotely controllable, autonomous, modular, and reconfigurable.

A team of students led by associate professor Santosh Pitla have been key contributors to Flex-Ro's development since its inception in 2015, building new capabilities for the machine. Recent focus on automated seeding has led to key mechanical adjustments that allow the robot to penetrate no-till soil, and continuous trials and refinements have enabled more advanced control features.

Following a successful field trial, the team demonstrated that Flex-Ro can autonomously navigate and plant an entire plot once a GPS is set. The robot operates under "supervised autonomy", needing human supervision for safety while moving between fields.

This project, which won the 2022 Engineering Pitch Competition, symbolizes the successful collaboration between agricultural engineering and agricultural systems technology students. Future plans for the project involve implementing controller area network technology and testing algorithms for collaboration between unmanned aerial and ground vehicles. The goal is to autonomously manage the full 300 acres of Rogers Memorial Farm with Flex-Ro robots and drones within the next five years.

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