Industry Watch

Brotherly love: (from left) Charlie Bares, Kent Cavender-Bares, and John Bares with an early prototype

Innovation on the farm

Rowbot Systems plans to shift the farm machinery paradigm — one row at a time

By J.D. Kramer

Today we frequently hear about laptop-toting champions of change and their successes with the latest Internet phenomena. Rowbot Systems is innovating in a more traditional field: agriculture. The small Minneapolis-based company is building a platform that will improve upon unsustainable farming practices, starting with the way farmers add nitrogen fertilizer to corn crops.

Often, farmers apply fertilizer in late fall or around the time of planting in the springeven though the crop won't actually use the nutrients until mid-summer. During the intervening months, some of the nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere, runoff, and groundwater. The lost nitrogen can cause significant environmental damageand money is wasted. 

Rowbot aims to reduce such loss by enabling farmers to apply nitrogen long after the corn has grown high. Its solution? Networked robots. In Rowbot's system, each robot is designed to fit in the roughly 30-inch gap between corn rows and carry about 40 gallons of liquid nitrogen. It's able to precisely add fertilizer as the crop is growing. This means that farmers can add nutrient right when the corn needs it, between late June and early August, and right where it needs it.

"[The team] sees a future where, if farmers are applying multiple times during the season, there's no reason we couldn't bring down the waste of nitrogen substantially," says Rowbot CEO and co-founder Kent Cavender-Bares.

Helping with the robot design is Carnegie Robotics, a Pittsburgh-based company headed by robotics engineer and Rowbot co-founder John Bares (Kent's brother). The robot features an articulating chassis with four-wheel drive and a mast with a high-end GPS tracker (to keep the robot on course). In the near future, the Rowbot team hopes to have a robot with enough cameras and sensors to make realtime decisions.

"The Rowbot is up and running nicely and has been tested and demonstrated in four states, including Minnesota," reports John Bares. "Each of these tests was in actual corn fields."

Beyond corn

Rowbot's scheme runs counter to the assumption held by most farm equipment manufacturers that the operator-to-machine ratio should be one-to-one. Instead, a single human operator can control multiple robots in the field, resulting in greater efficiency and lower labor costs. The machines will be able to communicate with the operator in the event of an emergency or when they have finished their fertilization jobs.

The company plans on going to market next summer through Crop Production Services, an agricultural retail supplier based in Big Lake that's already familiar to Rowbot's target customers. Farmers and co-ops will be offered fertilization packages with Rowbot technicians controlling the machines. Once Rowbot works out all the kinks, it will sell the robots to end-users as well.

Rowbot's innovation could save farmers a good deal of money, according to Rowbot co-founder and board chair Charlie Bares, another brother of Kent's and also a professional dairy farmer. Farmers can spend up to $600 a ton, or $150 per acre, on nitrogen, he says. By applying an appropriate amount in the right place just when it's needed, farmers will be able to save money and, theoretically, increase yields.

Rowbot is focused solely on corn crops for now; however, the team intends to extend the capabilities of the robot to seeding, applying herbicides and pesticides, and potentially harvesting small crops. Enabling the robot to collect information on plant health, soil coloration, and other factors is also in the company's plans.

Rowbot intends to build more than just a new farming implement. The team is stressing its unique position as the developer of a new paradigm in farming equipment, one defined by small autonomous machinery.

Not that it's an easy ambition. "It's a hard problem to figure out how to take a robot that's really tiny compared to how the operation is done today and make it effective," says John Bares.

With Rowbot's engineering expertise, resolving the mechanical aspects of the challenge shouldn't be too much of an issue. Shifting a paradigm, though—that one might be harder.