Robot seeder nets Sask. engineer third in competition

ODESSA, Sask. — Engineer Nathan Muchowski expects robots to be seeding for farmers within the next five years.

He built a prototype to test his theory that won third place in the 2016 agBOT Challenge in Rockville, Indiana.

The idea for an unmanned seeder had been on the 26-year-old’s mind for several years, so when he saw a Twitter message for the AgBOT Challenge, he jumped into action.

“This was a way to test my idea and to make a seeder exactly the way I wanted to do it,” said Much-owksi.

The University of Regina graduate grew up on a grain farm in Odessa, Sask., where he was always drawn to the mechanical side of the operation. Upon graduating with a degree in electronics systems engineering, Muchowksi took a high-tech job in Regina, but it wasn’t in the agricultural sector.

The automated seeder was a way for him to work on one of the ag-related projects he’d always been passionate about. The design stage took about 10 months with the physical construction phase consuming more than 300 hours.

“I was very proud of what we had built and constructed be-cause when you basically scrounge up parts and money the way we did, and you actually have something to show for it, it’s very re-warding,” said Muchowski whose father, Pat Muchowski, helped him with the fabrication of the seeder’s frame.

The agBOT seeder cost roughly $20,000 to build, most of which came out of Muchowski’s pocket. As well, agricultural sector sponsors donated parts and cash.

The outcome was bittersweet when the young engineer travelled to the Indiana competition in May under the banner of Muchowski Farms because the seeder was not operational enough to be in the field test.

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“The judges told us that if we would have gotten it out there, we would have had first place because we were the only team that had answers to all of their objectives,” said Muchowski.

Unlike many seeders in the competition, Muchowski’s was built from scratch — he wrote the program, engineered the design and fabricated the entire machine. The free-standing automated seeder is also fully electric, making it a zero-emissions implement.

“I just didn’t write the software or do the drive systems, but I integrated all the components together to make a working unit.”

Muchowksi sees unmanned seeders similar to the one he designed being in the field within the next decade. He envisions farmers using 10 to 20 of them with only one person needed in a central command centre.

He believes robotic seeders and other similar equipment will revolutionize farming in the upcoming decades.

“With machine learning and the advances in artificial intelligence, there may not even need to be a farmer controlling equipment for seeding, swathing and harvest.”

Muchowski’s participation in the competition delivered greater rewards than he expected. He received several agricultural sector job offers, one of which was in Regina.

“It got me my dream job.”

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As well, the US$10,000 prize for the third place finish helped defray some of his costs.

The first place team was also from Saskatchewan. U of R students Samuel Dietrich, Joshua Friedrick and Caleb Friedrick took home the $50,000 cash prize for a seeder pulled by a remote-controlled tractor. The students designed the software that enabled the tractor to be operated remotely.

The fourth year students were supervised by associate professor Mehran Mehrandezh and helped by technologist Dean Kertai. The project was part of their final year Capstone engineering project.

The second place prize of $30,000 was awarded to Purdue/South Newton Polytech of Indiana.

Muchowski split the third place prize of $20,000 with PeeDee Precision Ag of South Carolina.

Muchowski said he is considering entering the 2017 AgBOT Challenge, which is again focused on seeders. However, he realizes that going solo on such a complex project is difficult.

“I learned that if you’re going to take on something of this scale, you really need a large industry behind you to provide the resources.”

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