Students invent autonomous robot that eradicates invasive insects

It uses machine learning to spot the species.
Loukia Papadopoulos

A student team from Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute has engineered an autonomous robot called TartanPest that can stop spotted lanternflies, an invasive species of insects known to destroy economically important crops, in their tracks.

This is according to a press release by the institution published on Thursday.

The new robot consists of an all-electric tractor, a robotic arm and computer vision. With these assets, it can roam fields and forests and detect and destroy spotted lanternfly egg masses using a rotating brush on the end of its arm. 

The brush spins around to help dislodge the eggs and eradicate them.

Lanternfly egg masses can contain up to 30-50 eggs and are often found on trees, rocks, outdoor furniture and rusty metal surfaces. If not effectively stopped, they birth a new generation of the pests each year.

"Currently, spotted lanternflies are concentrated in the eastern portion of the nation, but they are predicted to spread to the whole country," said in the statement Carolyn Alex, an undergraduate researcher on the TartanPest team. "By investing in this issue now, we will be saving higher costs in the future."

TartanPest was created by mounting a robotic arm to the base of an all-electric Amiga microtractor made by California-based robotics company Farm-ng. The machine uses a deep learning model refined on an augmented image data set created from 700 images of spotted lanternfly egg masses from iNaturalist to identify the invasive insects and dispose of them.

An invasive draining species

Lanternflies spread quickly and easily as they have the capacity to feed on a variety of plants and produce, including grapes, apples, hops, walnuts and many different hardwoods. It has been estimated that in Pennsylvania alone, they have the potential to drain $300 million from the economy annually. 

As such, TartanPest could prove extremely beneficial to small farmers and the broader food system. The autonomous robot would help in three particular areas: lowering the chemical pollution of crops, increasing efficiency on farms and saving labor costs for farmers.

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