Skip to main content
ARS Home » Office of Communications » Discoveries » 2019 » FastForward

headline bar


Photo: ARS soil scientist assessing the effects of wind erosion

Robotic Researchers Brave the Elements

Sandstorms can make collecting wind erosion data a painful experience for ARS researchers who get pelted while studying ways to protect rangeland used to graze cattle. One solution to the problem could come in the form of a six-legged robot that mimics the movements of a cockroach—creepy to see perhaps, but ideal for navigating sandy, rugged terrain and collecting data beyond what a human could comfortably or safely endure. ARS researchers, with University of Pennsylvania collaborators as part of a National Science Foundation-funded project, are exploring the potential of robots to take on hazardous duties related to studying global threats, such as wind erosion of soils and the expansion of deserts. In this instance, the ARS-Penn team is evaluating a robot prototype known as ""RHex" to carry instrumentation that collects data on wind speed and sediment deposition in western rangelands, where changing weather patterns can limit the available grasses for cattle to eat. Ultimately, data generated by RHex the robotic researcher will help its human counterparts better understand and manage the effects of windstorms on the soils and vegetation of millions of acres of rangeland.

Photo: smart sprayer

"Smart" Sprayer Technology Cuts Pesticide Use

When applying chemicals to floral, nursery, or orchard crops, where the chemical lands is sometimes more important than how much is applied to control stealthy pests and pathogens. One solution being tried involves using lasers—but not to blast these scourges into fiery oblivion. Rather, the lasers are part of a high-speed scanning system that enables new sprayer technology to "see” the size, shape, presence, and density of a fruit tree’s foliage and deliver variable rates of pesticide to it in real time. A team led by ARS scientists in Wooster, OH, developed and tested the smarter sprayer technology. In apple orchard trials, use of the smart sprayer reduced pesticide loss beyond the tree canopy by 40 to 87 percent. The sprayer also prevented between 68 and 93 percent of pesticide from reaching the ground below trees. The 2-ton prototype can treat one to six rows of trees at a time and can be retrofitted onto conventional sprayers commonly used in orchards, nurseries, and vineyards.

Related Information

Article: Orchard Management Technology

Photo: Technician drives robotic equipment

Robotic Arm Adds Muscle to Tree Pruning

Fruit trees go dormant during the winter and must be pruned so that they’ll bear plenty of high-quality fruit the following summer. However, it can be hard to find someone willing to stand on a ladder all day in the cold and operate a handheld lopper to prune the trees. Enter the Robotic System for Tree Shape Estimation, RoTSE. Another team led by ARS scientists in Kearneysville, WV, investigated the robotic vision system to take over the task from human pruners. As with the smart sprayer, the system takes stock of the tree’s shape and other features—but using multiple images taken from a camera mounted on a robotic arm rather than laser scanning. Algorithms merge the information from the images to calculate such things as branch angle, diameter, and length. These features are used in tree-pruning protocols for deciding which branches to cut. The current RoTSE prototype system rides atop a mobile platform that can be driven through the orchard. The system also is being used to collect information on the shape and other physical attributes of the trees, which is important in breeding new varieties with desirable traits.

Related Information

Article: Orchard Management Technology

Photo: Pickers harvesting apples with an in-field sorting machine

Precision Sorting Keeps Bad Apples Out of the Bunch

Two other labor-intensive practices that ARS researchers in East Lansing, MI, hope to streamline are fruit harvesting and sorting. In the apple business, for example, harvesting accounts for around 15 percent of total production costs, and postharvest storage and packing can account for one-third or more of those costs. All harvested apples, regardless of their quality grades, are placed in the same bins and then hauled to sheds for storage. However, during harvest, pickers don’t have time to inspect each one. One solution comes from a self-propelled apple-harvest and in-field sorting machine developed by ARS researchers and their industry partners. The current prototype works by transporting harvested fruit to a vision inspection chamber via a system of conveyors. The chamber aligns the apples in single file, separates them equally, rotates them, takes multiple pictures of each fruit, assigns a quality grade, and then sends the graded fruit to a specific bin. Trials indicate that, under certain orchard configurations, growers could achieve gross savings of $34,000 in postharvest storage and packing if the machine was used for one full season.

Related Information

Article: Orchard Management Technology

Photo: Close up of two cows standing together.

Monitoring Animal Health…Precisely

Instead of uniform rates of water, fertilizer, or pesticide, precision farming calls for giving crops only what they need—when they need it and where—for optimal health and productivity. This can cut down on costs, conserve resources, and help safeguard the environment, among other benefits. But precision farming isn’t just for crops; the practice also applies to managing livestock animals. ARS researchers in Woodward, OK, have fitted beef cattle with special collars to monitor their movements and behavior. The researchers download the information to a computer and analyze it in relation to each animal’s body mass as opposed to taking a group average. This allows better estimates of the relationship between individual animal’s use of the pasture and its productivity in different feed or pasture management regimens. Elsewhere, ARS researchers are testing precision farming technology to continuously monitor the health, welfare, and performance of swine. Besides helping producers adjust their management practices, the technology could speed their detection and treatment of sick pigs. Researchers are also testing imaging methods to better sort pigs by their market weights as well as monitor sow behavior for information on farrow crate designs and sizes. The latter is important in preventing sows from accidentally crushing their piglets.

Photo: ARS entomologist using new test that quickly identifies red imported fire ants.

A Field Kit for Fire Ants

Accurately identifying red imported fire ants at ports of entry, inspection points, and quarantine areas could get a lot easier and faster to do, thanks to a new field kit developed by scientists with ARS and the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The invasive ant, Solenopsis invicta, is a biting and stinging pest that poses a danger not only to people and small animals but also to property and crops. Indeed, since arriving in the United States in the 1930s, the species has infested 367 million acres and caused an estimated $6 billion in control costs and damages. Drawing on decades of expertise, ARS and APHIS researchers used a protein from the fire ant’s own venom to develop a highly specific antibody-based field kit that, in 10 minutes, can tell the pest apart from other ant species. This speed and accuracy is especially critical at ports of entry and truck inspection stations, where authorities must quickly but thoroughly check cargo or other items in transit to ensure they’re free of invasive stowaways. The field kit, which has been commercially developed by Agdia, Inc., under the trade name InvictDetect™ ImmunoStrip®, is equally important in maintaining fire ant quarantine zones. A new version is under development that will also identify the black imported fire ant, S. richteri.

Related Information

Article: Fast Test Identifies Red Imported Fire Ants