Robots tackle tasks with ease

Automated planting | Prospero can fertilize, seed and apply herbicide

Prospero is a tiny field-roving robot that intends to replace the tractor and seeder.

Grain growers still have a few years to get used to the idea, but it could soon be a reality in row crops.

This autonomous micro planter (AMP), which is the brainchild of robotics specialist Dave Dorhout of Iowa, pushes the concept of robotic farming to a new and unexpected outer limit.

The current thinking is that robotics can be used to enhance producers’ control of farm equipment, but Dorhout has a different idea.

He envisions swarms of small, lightweight, inexpensive robots chugging around fields planting soybeans and corn on their own, while producers manage other farm matters, attend baseball games or sleep at night.

Dorhout, an entomologist who is self-taught in electronics, said robotics give farmers the opportunity to manage land down to a scale of five square inch blocks rather than field zones or acres. Prospero may be the ultimate in precision farming, analyzing each individual spot where a seed will go down.

“I already have one Prospero built and operating as intended,” said Dorhout.

“It identifies a very specific point where the seed should go, places the seed at the correct depth with a probe, marks the spot with a dye so it’s not disturbed, then moves to the next spot. I’d like to build a fleet of 20 or more so we can try it out for real on a whole field.”

Dorhout envisions an army of small robots attacking a corn or soybean field that’s ready for planting. Each soldier has the capacity to do a quick analysis on the five sq. inch target and select the most appropriate hybrid variety.

In its backpack, each soldier carries fertilizers, lime, herbicides and seed varieties, which the farmer feels will meet the needs of this field.

The Prospero checks soil moisture and places the seed at the best depth. The probe places the appropriate pop-up and other fertilizers for that small piece of land, along with pre-emergent herbicides. It can do a quick pH test and apply lime if needed.

Robots can operate 24 hours a day, rain or shine. And because they’ll be cheap, there are a lot of them. They would be grouped in platoons of 10 to 20 soldiers, which report to a platoon captain.

“This would be a larger, smarter robot about the size of a riding lawnmower,” Dorhout said.

“This robot keeps all the smaller robots supplied with seed and fertilizer so they keep running without stops. But first, this master robot drives a perimeter around the field to define the boundaries of the seeding area with GPS. It’s like a shepherd. It guides the swarm across the field, ensuring they plant every five sq. inch square and they’re working efficiently. They’d probably always be within 50 feet of the shepherd.”

Depending on field size and time constraints, one field may have one platoon or maybe three or four working at one time.

Either way, when the seeding operation is done, every five-inch square will have been managed with a high degree of precision, and there’s no compaction or ruts.

When too many robots congregate in one area, the crowded ones send out a red light alert, signalling nearby planters to spread out. They can spread out in any direction within the parameters of the field, wherever they detect there’s a need.

Robots send out a green signal when they enter virgin ground or ground that’s sparsely seeded.

“When the planting operation is complete, you have uniform seed placement across the field.”

Dorhout said the Prospero is not advanced technology, which is what puts it into the realm of being financially viable.

For a view of Prospero, visit YouTube VanMunch36.

The Prospero s expected to make its first public debut at the Fruit and Vegetable Tech X-Change July 12-14 in St. Williams, Ont.

For more information, contact Dorhout at

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