Soft robotics assist sustainable agriculture

March 23, 2023

High tunnels
High tunnels.

The USDA is funding a research project at Illinois that will reduce manual labor costs in small urban farming operations. This grant is part of a broad USDA investment in urban agriculture. 

The project led by PI Girish Krishnan — RobInHighTs (Robot Integrated High Tunnels) — is geared to create profitable food oases in urban ecosystems.  Krishnan's primary expertise lies in soft and flexible robotics, able to perform delicate tasks (like picking tomatoes) without harming objects in the environment.

High tunnels are ephemeral, curved metal structures covered with greenhouse plastic that are ideal for growing plants on small urban farms. Cost-effective and adaptable, these high tunnels can extend the growing season; protect against severe weather; increase crop yields; and improve the quality of fruits, vegetables and cut flowers.  They have gained popularity over the last two decades in the urban and peri-urban setting due to their cost-effectiveness,  adaptability and low environmental costs.

Though advantageous, urban high tunnels require an extra degree of management to ensure a quality crop and good production rates as the urban environment brings new challenges with unique pests and soil quality. Sustenance and economic viability of urban high tunnels are thus limited by the shortage and rising inequities in urban agricultural workforce. The primary objective of the proposal is to demonstrate that the RobInHighTs platform can greatly automate routine high tunnel operations leading to increased crop yield and reduced manual intervention, while simultaneously preserving soil quality for sustained use.

RobInHighTs will use AI-powered robotics to automate operations.

Krishnan is also part of a team to implement robotics in high tunnels at the Sustainable Student Farm to improve crop yields, reduce manual labor costs and increase profits. The team's approach, guided by past research, will integrate compact mobile platforms and novel hybrid soft-rigid manipulators within high tunnel environments in the Illinois Student Sustainability Farm. The project is funded through iSEE’s 2023 Campus as a Living Laboratory (CALL) program, which supports research teams that tackle interdisciplinary sustainability issues on campus or in neighboring communities.

This project will demonstrate the potential for specialized robots to:

  • navigate autonomously through rows of crops in high tunnels
  • use AI-powered perception to identify targets such as berries, leaves and possible pests
  • perform fine dexterous manipulation tasks such as berry harvesting, pruning and precision spraying.


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