The farm labor shortage is a persistent pain point for producers across America. Researchers at Mississippi State University have developed a two-fingered robotic arm that works with camera-based perception system to identify and pluck one cotton boll at a time. The new “end-effector” is seen as potential game changer for cotton producers.
In robotics, an “end-effector” is the device at the end of a robotic arm, designed to interact with the environment. The exact nature of this device depends on the application of the robot. Inspired by the distinctive way a lizard’s tongue reaches for its prey, the MSU end-effector is designed to pluck one cotton boll at a time – rather than all at once like machines — making harvesting possible earlier and more often when seed cotton is at peak quality.
“The cotton plant presents unique challenges to an AI-based camera system because bolls can be oriented in different directions, and seed cotton is not solid and contiguous like an apple,” said Gharakhani, an MSU ag and bio engineering assistant professor. The robotic arm is fitted with cameras to allow it to identify whether cotton is ready to be picked or not, and has a high level of dexterity to allow it to pick fiber from each individual cotton plant.
Alex Thomasson, MSU agricultural and biological engineering department head, notes that while other universities are involved in this research, it’s the MSU-developed end-effector which sets this land-grant university’s system apart. The team said the design has potential applications beyond the cotton industry, capable of harvesting a range of crops and easing pressures from ongoing labor shortages. However, they also acknowledge that the technology still has a long way to go before it’s commercially viable.
Xin Zhang, another researcher and department assistant professor, is focused on integrating Gharakhani’s end-effector with a commercial, six-degree-of-freedom robotic arm and a 4-wheel drive robotic platform. Known as the “Husky” made by Clearpath Robotics, it operates with a GPS navigation unit and a perception module.
According to Zhang, the researchers have been building and testing the systems individually. Over the next year, they will shit focus to integration and navigation with the goal of building a completely autonomous harvester that can work across unpredictable and uneven terrain. Zhang is currently testing the robot’s in-field performance onsite at the university’s R. R. Foil Plant Science Research Center, known as North Farm. Watch a video of the robot in action HERE.
The end-effector project is sponsored by Cotton, Inc. MSU has undertaken the project as part of its efforts to improve agricultural precision, production, and profitability. MSU in June of this year (2023) also established the Agricultural Autonomy Institute (AAI), a research center dedicated to developing autonomous farm technologies. MSU believes the center will establish Mississippi as the “Silicon Valley of Agricultural Autonomy.” (Sources: MSU, IOT World Today, Phys.org)