Earthworm-inspired robots may be coming to a farm near you
If you want to know the local soil conditions, it would be great if you could just ask an earthworm. Given that that's an impossibility, though, scientists are now working on the next-best thing – earthworm-inspired soil-analyzing agricultural robots.
Currently under development at New York's Cornell University, the robots should each measure about one to two feet (30.5 to 61 cm) in length.
An auger-like mechanism at the front will drill into the dirt, while the rear section will repeatedly slide forward, packing the dislodged soil into the wall of the resulting tunnel. The latter feature is inspired by the peristaltic motion which worms use to move through the ground.
As the robots tunnel into agricultural soil, the amount of effort which is required to do so will be used to determine the density of that soil. At the same time, integrated sensors will measure its temperature and humidity. Additionally, fiber optic cables could be used to image plant roots within the soil, and to measure microorganism activity along with levels of carbon compounds released by the roots.
Because radio waves don't travel well through dirt, all of the data will be recorded onboard the robots for subsequent retrieval. That being said, it may be possible to transmit data acoustically from the robots to wires running along the surface. Once all the data is gathered and analyzed, it is hoped that it could be utilized for purposes such as predicting yields, assessing crops' stress tolerance, and even evaluating their response to climate change.
The robots will initially be tested on maize crops, where a single robot will travel up and down each row of plants.
"We plan on developing new tools so that we can tap into the below-ground environment of plants and soil in a way that allows us to shine light in a black box of plant and soil interactions," says Assoc. Prof. Taryn Bauerle, who is leading the three-year project along with Assoc. Prof. Robert Shepherd.
Source: Cornell University