There is a lot happening in the agtech world these days with a steady stream of gadgets and gizmos always being introduced. The appeal from a startup standpoint is obvious, as agriculture has a lot of areas where technology can deliver real and certifiable results that farmers can be convinced to pay for. I can’t think of any possible result that could top the ability to save lives, though, which is the primary goal behind the Grain Weevil robot.
Chad Johnson of JLI Robotics gives credit for the robot to his son Ben, who came up with the idea at the request of his friend Zach Hunnicutt, a Nebraska farmer that wanted something that could eliminate the need for some if not all bin entries. Hunnicutt knows personally how dangerous the inside of a grain bin can be as his great-uncle died in a grain bin accident when he was young. Hunnicutt himself climbs inside them himself dozens of times a year.
Unfortunately, its a risk that’s all too often unavoidable as there’s not much else to be done when the grain clumps or clogs. Even when stationary, grain can settle beneath someone who is inside the bin, which can quickly lead to entrapment. Entrapment can occur in four to five seconds, and full engulfment can result in only 22 seconds. The risk becomes extreme when machinery such as an auger is running, making it more likely that someone in the bin will be pulled down into the moving grain as it is flowing. Once entrapped, it is nearly impossible for a person to free themself. One foot of grain in a bin can create about 300 pounds of pressure, which also makes it extremely difficult for others to pull someone out. The United States averaged about 35 reported grain-handling incidents per year from 2005 to 2015, about 60% to 70% of which were fatal, according to Purdue University.
Johnson came up with the Grain Weevil, a 26 pound, 18-inch long robot that can break up a crust or level grain as it augers into a bin or truck. “Figuring out how to build a robot that could drive across grain was our biggest challenge,” Ben recalls. “After many months of trial and error, we came up with the auger solution. You should have seen our faces the first time we saw it move across a pile of grain!” The next task was extending the battery life, which they had up to 2 hours as of the end of last year. They have also introduced a video stream and a basic sensor package with the ultimate goal of being able to run the Grain Weevil autonomously. “We need to get to where the farmer in his truck can hit the ‘easy’ button and have the Grain Weevil do its job,” explains Ben.
In the process of creating the Grain Weevil, the father and son duo founded JLI Robotics, with Ben serving as chief innovation officer. The invention won JLI a spot in this year’s AgLaunch365 incubator program, which is helping them design on-farm trials. Nebraska’s Combine Incubator program is helping them find farmers to work with and gather feedback. You can watch a video of the Grain Weevil in action at the company’s website HERE. It’s a pretty cool little machine! (Sources: FarmShow, Clay&Milk, CropLife)