Isler’s Robotics Sensor Network Lab Monitors the Environment and Agriculture

July 10, 2015

The video is of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) hovering down a row of apple trees at Pine Tree Apple Orchard.  There are two students in the shot, but as the UAV lifts they quickly dance away to let the tethered hexacopter fly on its own.  Neither of the students are at the controls because this drone is fully autonomous, and its task is to detect individual apples on the trees, which it does with precision.  The next scene in the short clip shows a computer display digitally framing each apple for identification.

Apple detection just one of the many fascinating projects coming out of Volkan Isler’s Robotic Sensor Network Lab (RSN), which was recently featured by Minnesota Daily in their piece, “Agriculture’s high-tech future.”  

The RSN Lab has been working on a broad set of RSN-related problems, ranging from theoretical problems like Pursuit Evasion to developing systems in which robots act as Data Mules.  All of these projects fulfill RSN’s larger mission of tackling challenging problems at the intersection of robotics, perception, and communication.

Recently, the group has focused on robotics applications for the environment and agriculture.

Environmental Monitoring

robotic_boat.jpgVisit the RSN Lab and what stands out most is a pair of boats about half the length of a personal kayak.  Attached to the bow is a radio antennae which is used to track a species of invasive carp that are polluting area lakes by uprooting plants and stirring up pollutants, which is harmful for waterfowl and other aquatic creatures.

Controlling this invasive species can be costly. With the help of the National Science Foundation, RSN has designed a system that automates tracking of the carp.  The system combines two robotic platforms: a six-wheeled all-terrain mobile robot that operates on lake ice in the winter, and the robotic boats that are used when there is open water.

Following a path that optimizes the search pattern, each robot variant searches the lake until it detects a nearby radio-tagged fish.  After finding the fish, the robot calculates the most likely spot the fish is located.

The project brings together a team of specialists, from roboticists to fish biologists, who tackle the many challenges when tracking an elusive bottom-feeding fish with multiple autonomous robots.  However, this collaboration will one day automate a task that is time-consuming and costly for human counterparts.

The lab put together a video to best show how the project may someday work in practice.

Precision Agriculture

RSN has also been working to create smarter agricultural monitoring systems.  By studying the problem of coordinating UAVs and Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs), the lab has been able to look into ways of using robots to estimate levels of nitrogen across farmland.  This information can be used to determine fertilizer usage for particular areas in fields and could potentially reduce the amount of fertilizer currently being used by providing strategic information as to where the fertilizer should go and how much should be spread.

The system uses two robots.  A flying UAV that analyzes the field, while a roaming UGV acts as a mule to direct the UAV to deployment points.

These types of cutting-edge systems are gaining notice.

RSN’s Precision Agriculture was recently highlighted by the Vice President for Research in their online publication Inquiry.  The article, “Growing a sustainable bioeconomy,” looks into the work being done by the RSN Lab and a team of U of M researchers studying how to maximize the economic, environmental, and social benefits of the biofuel industry.

On the robotics side, RSN partnered with Rowbot, a startup company that develops robots for agricultural use, to develop “smarter” versions of existing automated farming robots, such as UAVs that fly overhead and help coordinate “smart” seeding robots below.

All in all, Isler’s RSN Lab continues to churn out forward-thinking robotics projects to help solve environmental and agricultural problems, many of which can be explored on the Robotics Sensor Networks Lab’s website, where you can see video of all the groundbreaking projects mentioned above and many others.

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