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Podcast 02 July 2019

LINcast: Agricultural Innovation at the agBOT Challenge

This LINcast episode features conversations from the agBOT challenge, a three-day event that showcases universities and entrepreneurs competing in building autonomous solutions for agricultural innovation.

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For more information about the agBOT Challenge visit their website.

Full Transcript

Gabe Duverge: Hello and welcome to the latest episode of the LINcast, a LINAK podcast featuring conversations exploring the latest research and innovation behind actuation solutions. We are improving people's quality of life and working environment through smooth and reliable movement. My name is Gabe Duverge and today, we have a unique episode for you.

Gabe Duverge: Recently, we attended the fourth annual agBOT challenge, hosted by Purdue Agriculture and Gerrish Farms in West Lafayette, Indiana. This international competition challenges teams to create autonomous robots capable of performing agricultural tasks. At the event, I interviewed several people, from event organizers, competitors, to even attendees. This episode will feature those discussions about the event, why it's unique, and why it's important for agricultural innovation.

Gabe Duverge: The first conversation you will hear features Rachel Gerrish, the co-founder and senior executive producer of the agBOT challenge. She gave us a background of agBOT, how it was started, and what it's been like to watch it grow.

Rachel Gerrish: So, in 2015, came up with the idea that we really needed to explore getting some real broadband on our family farm, at Gerrish Farms. So my father had the idea that, "Let's pop that up, and then let's challenge people to say, 'What would agriculture look like, if we have high speed broadband?' So let's design a symbolic event to say, 'What would that be?'" In doing that, he designed the agBOT challenge, which is... They came up with the objectives and set out to do three years. They wanted to cover a crop cycle, so seeding, weeding, feeding, and harvesting.

Rachel Gerrish: Throughout the years, then in 2016, we hosted a seeding competition. In 2017, we redid the seeding competition and a weed and feed competition. The third year, in 2018, we did a weed and feed competition and a watermelon harvest.

Gabe Duverge: Oh, wow.

Rachel Gerrish: All of the machines focused on trying to be autonomous, making autonomous decisions using image recognition and different kinds of software overlaying lots of cross-collaboration. So set out, did those three years and then going into our fourth year, Purdue was really animated about what we were doing and felt like it was a really good partnership for us to move it up Purdue University in West Lafayette, at the Agronomic Center for Research and Education, which has been a great site to be able to host the teams.

Rachel Gerrish: In addition to that, each year we've done a day before the events, called NextGen Expo, in which we invite hundreds of youth, all excited about robotics, all excited about Ag. Asking them to come together, meet the teams, explore the robots, and have an interactive STEM fair. So this has been a great venue to do that.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. What has it been like to grow? Because I mean, starting on your family's farm and moving to here, what's it been like kind of seeing that growth? It's quite interesting just to hear you talk about it.

Rachel Gerrish: I think probably the best word to describe it is humbling. You set out with kind of a crazy idea, and then people pick up on it, and they try it, they execute it. Every year, our teams are getting smarter. Our supporters are getting more motivated. Probably some of the most rewarding things that have come from this is to watch the companies and intellectual property that have developed from it.

Gabe Duverge: Right.

Rachel Gerrish: For instance, we had a group of competitors who had been in a university, they won the first year, graduated, and then created a company. Came back that second year, won again. Going into the third year, they came back as judges because they had been hired up by a really successful company up in Canada. So now they come back as judges, but they do miss being competitors, I will say that.

Rachel Gerrish: Another team, we had one team that came in, this entrepreneur, he ended up talking a lot with one of judges. They actually ended up forming a company together, and then hiring a couple of the university students that were from a different team of competitors. So, that kind of collaboration, and networking, and partnership to where people actually see a vision and take the chance to really push it out in the market, that's what we're going for.

Gabe Duverge: No, absolutely. You mentioned it and some of the conversations I've had, it's been great to talk to some of the students. They talk about the fact that they reach across universities, across teams. They're "competing" here today, it's definitely collaboration first and foremost, and that's really cool to see.

Rachel Gerrish: Yeah. Probably my favorite part of the whole thing, all year long, is when I get to kind of design reviews throughout the year with everybody, challenging and talking through all of the problems. When everybody gets here and they're working late, late into the night trying to finish everything up, the whole thing is all about helping each other.

Rachel Gerrish: So, one person is having trouble coding, connecting, whatever it is, they can... If somebody else hears about it, they're on each other's machines back and forth. So, although it is a competition, the spirit of this competition is about coming together, learning from one another, getting smarter, and that's probably my favorite thing is you see people from coast to coast, all of the place doing that. That's what we need to do to move this innovation forward, at the level that we need it to be at.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. So, this is the fourth year, where do you see agBOT in five years, 10 years? What do you want next for the event?

Rachel Gerrish: Next for the event, we continue to hopefully keep challenging people to take on the challenge. So, we love our alumni that keep coming back with these amazing advancements and incredible designs. But we also want to reach out to more universities and more entrepreneurs to get more people taking the chance. Right now, whereas there's a lot of innovative competitions, where people come and bring their innovations, they're all different innovations. We're talking a different approach. We're saying, "Here's a problem. Let's all try, and solve this same problem."

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Rachel Gerrish: We're coming up with people that have completely different ideas and designs. From those, which one worked best? The next year, we're only stronger because we all learned together, failed together, succeeded together. It's not just one group of people trying to solve one problem.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. Rachel, I really appreciate your time. This is great.

Rachel Gerrish: Thanks.

Gabe Duverge: The teams that compete in the agBOT challenge work tirelessly for an entire year. They take an idea from a small thought to a fully, really operational machine. I was able to talk to one of the advisors for the Purdue University team, Richard Fox, who works for the Agricultural Sciences Education and Communications Department. We spoke about what it's like to participate in the challenge, and what the students get out of it.

Richard Fox: Basically, the contest, they come up a new way to increase technology into farming, which is kind of where you're going. You're not getting as many hands or people to be able to work on the farms and stuff, so you're getting less and less of that labor force. So you've got to do things more with technologies that handle it. Autosteer is one, basically a tractor pretty much will steer itself. Even most of them will turn, raise implements, things like that. So those are the technologies that are there.

Richard Fox: What this contest is about is moving it to the next level, okay? So we've got them steering but what about having them drive themselves, nobody in it. Okay? So that's the next level. We're using a Yamaha UTV. We've got like a rototiller attached to it.

Gabe Duverge: Right.

Richard Fox: Because we decided early on to try to limit the amount of chemical we're doing. So we had mechanical weed eradication between the rows, and then we have spray actually in the rows. We're doing that. With doing that, you have to be able to raise and lower these things, and that's what we're using the actuators for, one of them. We're also not... We don't have hydraulics on these things, like we do big tractors.

Gabe Duverge: Of course. Yeah.

Richard Fox: We do have electric power.

Gabe Duverge: Right.

Richard Fox: So linear actuators fit beautiful for that. They also have very fine movements on them so for speed control, brake control, they fit perfectly for that type of stuff. So, that's kind of what we're doing on that end of it. I've had electronic background, so I've been involved with how things hooked up, in different areas of that, trying to help students.

Richard Fox: The students get a wide variety of different skills that they can learn from here, not only the electronics, the computer, the mechanical, all that can come there. Also, there's a teamwork because there's a team here. No one person knows all these different parts. They've learned how to cooperate with each other, work on these projects under high stressful situations.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. Yeah. We've seen a lot of the students working. We're even sitting here, and they're working on the team now. It seems like that's one of the biggest, cool things I've seen kind of walking around here today and yesterday is seeing, like you said, people from all different departments. It seems like it's unique and a lot of academic competitions tend to be in specific departments. You'll have your specific decathlon, but it's great to see, like you said, computer engineers working with agricultural engineers, working with mechanical engineers.

Richard Fox: Yeah. All of that. The other thing is nice about this contest, especially, is there seems to be kind of a cooperative atmosphere. People are not afraid to go over to another team if they're struggling or ask questions of other teams.

Gabe Duverge: Right. Right.

Richard Fox: I think the Gerrishs, actually Steve and Rachel both, have encouraged that and I think that's where a lot of that comes from.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. That's definitely the vibe I'm getting and hearing from people. So you said its fourth year, where this is the first one at Purdue, where do you see this happening in the next five, maybe 10 years? Where do you see agBOT going from here?

Richard Fox: Well, there's a lot of different things in Ag that we still got to conquer, yet. Even within this contest, the weed and feed, nothing is polished yet.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Richard Fox: We're getting there. We're trying different things. It'd be great to be able to go 10 mile an hour through a field with a six row and be able to spray and do all this, at a faster speed.

Gabe Duverge: One day we'll get there.

Richard Fox: One day we'll get there. Right now, we're three to five, is kind of where we're kind of headed to. That's limited based On object detection. As things changed and as we learn more about those things, then we'll adapt to moving forward. There's another, and this is kind of, some people think a little farfetched, but it's not. Doing weed eradication based on lasers.

Gabe Duverge: Wow.

Richard Fox: Get rid of the chemical completely. You basically go down, and zap it, and move on.

Gabe Duverge: Makes sense.

Richard Fox: So there's all kinds of new things being thought of. Having drones being able to go in and spot where things are and communicate back and forth. So the expansion of this is almost limitless.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah. Absolutely. It's really cool to see. I'm sure a lot of the organizations that are here have got a few people from the business world and the agricultural business world, but it's great to see students on the front lines coming up with unique and interesting developments. Hopefully, some of them may end up going to some of those businesses and working on those projects there. So it's been fantastic to see.

Richard Fox: Absolutely. It is a student run project. They come up with the ideas. We give them advice, but the ultimate decision comes from them. This whole design layout, it's been over three years of students looking at what they had, refining, redesigning, and moving it forward.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah. It makes sense. I appreciate your time, Richard, this is fantastic.

Richard Fox: No problem.

Gabe Duverge: Thanks.

Richard Fox: All right. Thank you.

Gabe Duverge: The unique ideas and innovations presented at agBOT weren't just for the students. Several members of the agriculture community came out to the event to check out the competition and see what these students had come up with. I spoke with Ron Marker, who's the inventor of the Magictec, to learn more about why he was at Purdue for agBOT.

Ron Marker: It all excites me, I think. You know, I've always tried to be forward thinking. Even though I'm now in my 60s, I've always tried to look forward to the future and, "How can we do something better and provide..." We're feeding the world.

Gabe Duverge: Of course.

Ron Marker: Acreage is reducing and population is increasing in the world, so we need to increase yields and we need to be doing it environmentally safe. That was another reason I like using the electric power, instead of another gasoline motor with less carbon footprint that way. Anyhow, we need to be considering these options as we go. Some of them are going to flop, and some of them are going to forward. I think we need lighter equipment to do certain jobs, to reduce our compaction in our fields. I think that's going to happen. It'll allow us to get more productivity done. Smaller footprint, as far as compaction.

Ron Marker: So there's a lot of good things in it, that's just a couple of them.

Gabe Duverge: Of course. Yeah. No, It's been really cool, just in my limited time of watching it. My limit as not an engineer and my limit of understanding of things, but it does seem like some of the innovations... And even talking with Rachel, some of the innovations that are happening her are things that hopefully we'll see, not just in competitions like this, but on farms across America and the world.

Ron Marker: Hopefully in a short time.

Gabe Duverge: Any particular favorite thing that you saw here so far? Or that stuck out and excites you?

Ron Marker: Just how it's progressed from the 10 years ago, when I first looked into it. The sensors, the cameras, the 3D cameras, just all the technology is just... Technology is feeding technology, and it just keeps getting better and growing.

Gabe Duverge: Of course. Well, Ron, I appreciate your time.

Ron Marker: I appreciate you. Have a good day.

Gabe Duverge: Above all, agBOT is for its students. It was clear in our short time at the event that students were learning great lessons, not only about solving problems facing farmers but also gaining skills that could be carried into their future careers.

Gabe Duverge: One of the students from the University of Manitoba team, Eric Hawley, sat with me to talk about what it's like being a student and competing in agBOT.

Eric Hawley: So I actually formed the team.

Gabe Duverge: Right. Right.

Eric Hawley: I had this little garden prototype variety that I made a year ago, so I had it just tracing the little plants in my raised bed garden. I decided I was going to do a symposium presentation on it, and got the interest of JC Electronics. From there, we figured out we had the same objectives, and we said, "Okay. Let's do the agBOT challenge."

Gabe Duverge: Yeah.

Eric Hawley: So I got a team together, and we went through, and we built the prototype that you guys can see today.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. How long of a process was it? How did you go from that... When did that start, that first little prototype, to today? How long has it been?

Eric Hawley: So I took a... There's an imaging spectroscopy course in my second to last year. The moment that I finished that final exam, I said, "I'm going to make an agBOT." So I did that summer, and I realized, "Okay. I have a final design, three and four project." I said, "I'm not only going to make an agBOT, I'm going to recruit people to come and do with me, and I'm going to compete in this challenge."

Gabe Duverge: That's great. What would you say is the biggest thing you learned, doing this whole process?

Eric Hawley: Well, I mean, we did build autonomous robots, so I think I learned a lot. I don't know where to start on that one. So, I learned that doing things right takes just as much time as doing things fast and then fixing them later.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. That's a great lesson. So congratulations on graduating. You mentioned, before we started recording, that your employer was big part of that. Could you speak to that, and sort of what you've taken from this to the workplace?

Eric Hawley: Yeah. So the company I work for, 151 Research, is an innovator in electromagnetic imaging of green storage solutions. They are some of the most brilliant people I've ever had the chance to work with, and I'm honored to be working as the new product development engineer there. I think my experience in agBOT has given me the drive to see an entire design process and how to make something competitive and ready for market. I think that has really made me valuable to the team there, as well. I think they've been in awesome in the support that they've given us. Yeah. I'm very grateful.

Gabe Duverge: Yeah, totally. If anyone out there is thinking about participating at agBOT, do you have any advice? Any-

Eric Hawley: Do it. Drop everything now and start. It seems like a monumentous task but like anything, just keep at her and you'll get there.

Gabe Duverge: What's your favorite thing? Being here, kind of the culmination, what's been your favorite part?

Eric Hawley: Oh, okay so one of our team members, Franklin, he's one of the most straight faced people you'll ever meet. Last night, after the big storm here, we got out and we were doing our testing and when he saw the turn work for the first time, he just broke down in laughter. I think that was the best moment of this year.

Gabe Duverge: Any last words, and we'll leave it at that?

Eric Hawley: No. Thank you, and thanks LINAK for the awesome support that they've given us. It's been great.

Gabe Duverge: No. Yeah. Thank you guys. It's been fun. Thanks, Eric.

Gabe Duverge: To wrap things up. I'm sitting here with Anthony Fossaluzza, who's an applications engineer for our TECHLINE department, here at LINAK U.S. Anthony, you were up at Purdue with us for agBOT, and I just wanted to talk to you to sort of get your impressions. What did you think of the event, and being there with us, being with the teams? You worked with one of the teams personally, what was your impression of the event.

Anthony Fossaluzza: This was the first time that we went to this event. We had a really good time up there. It was interesting to see everybody's different take on the same problem. Things were kind of done differently here and there, so that was really interesting. It's similar to my job, where I help different customers all the time with whatever their solution... It is, like I said, interesting to see how somebody thinks differently about sort of the same thing.

Gabe Duverge: No, absolutely. I think it's interesting in your case. This is your first engineering job you're working with us, so it's not too long ago you were in these students' perspective, their position, when they were learning, and gaining knowledge, and then applying that knowledge. So, from that perspective, can you speak to that? Can you speak to what might be gained from this that students could potentially use in a future career?

Anthony Fossaluzza: I'd say seeing how the projects had progressed, I definitely felt their anxiety. Because, to think that they had to this whole project, and then try to button the whole thing, finish, right at the same time that they had finals. Like, to think about that just makes me still have nightmares from finishing school just a couple years ago. So it's very impressive, the progress that they made, given the circumstances that they had.

Anthony Fossaluzza: Then, the monkey wrench that was thrown into was the odd weather we've had this spring, so there was no corn in the ground. They designed their whole product around there being a 12 inch corn plant, and their machine was supposed to differentiate between corn and weeds, and-

Gabe Duverge: They didn't get a chance.

Anthony Fossaluzza: They didn't get a chance. So progress that everybody made, and then the way they were to accomplish it given the circumstances, was very impressive.

Gabe Duverge: Absolutely. I was really impressed with that, and that was an interesting point. I didn't even think about how we didn't get an opportunity to see even the full thing. But, last question from a LINAK perspective. What is it like for you working as an applications engineer, what can us at LINAK and potentially other businesses, take from these student projects that they're putting their blood, sweat, tears into but don't quite have all the business backing to do so?

Anthony Fossaluzza: I think it's similar to many of the customers that we work with because we work with these huge companies, but we also work with these teeny tiny startups that are working in a garage. I mean, you could actually kind of think of all of these university teams, and private teams as well, I mean they are startups. They're designing a product. They're-

Gabe Duverge: Great point.

Anthony Fossaluzza: ... Yeah. Starting from base level. I like being able to work with those types of people because they're the ones who come up, sometimes, with the most interesting innovations. We learn a lot from these customers about what's the next stages in technology, and we just try to support them best they can. Whether it be a university, some freshman and sophomore from mining college school. Yeah. Or some giant company that has a lot financial backing. We'll try to provide them basically the same service.

Gabe Duverge: The same service. Absolutely. With that, I think we'll close this out. I really appreciate you, Anthony, spending some time with us. I hope you guys, listeners, enjoyed listening and learning about agBOT. agBOT will be back next year. If you're interested, you should look them up. Type in a Google search. If you're interested in anything else that LINAK is doing or has going on, please visit our website at Thanks for listening to another episode of the LINcast.

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