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Researchers Develop Robot That Tells Farmers When to Water Crops

A team of researchers from UC Riverside is developing a mobile robotic pressure chamber.

Knowing when exactly to water plants can be challenging enough for an average gardener. For the agriculture industry, it's a huge task that has called for leaps in innovation over the years, so as to help countries manage their water resources wisely.

Now, a group of researchers from UC Riverside and UC Merced has received a grant for more than $1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through the National Science Foundation’s National Robotics Initiative to take on the challenge.

The result? The group is developing a robotic pressure chamber that autonomously samples leaves and immediately tests them to provide data on a crop's watering needs.

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An autonomous leaf tester

In order to determine water needs, growers typically hand-pick individual leaves from plants before sending them off-site where they are put in pressure chambers. These chambers allow analysts to apply air pressure to determine when water begins to leak from the leaf stems, showing how soon the plant will need to be watered.

This type of testing is time-consuming and can be inefficient as growers typically can't dedicate an entire day to testing different parts of a field.

What's more, "the properties of the leaf might vary given the time elapsed between being sampled and being analyzed, which in turn may yield misleading results," UC Riverside Assistant Professor Konstantinos Karydis explained in a press release.

As part of the UC Riverside team's project, the researchers are developing a robotic pressure chamber that autonomously samples leaves. The system will work to gather data from several samples in large fields, helping growers to schedule the optimal irrigation schedule.

The new robot model

The UC Riverside team is developing their new model based on the Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery, or RAPID, system previously built by members of the same team. This system travels along rows of crops adjusting irrigation flows according to sensor data.

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The new robot will be equipped with a custom-made robotic leaf sampler and pressure chamber that is being designed at UC Riverside. This technology will work alongside drones that will survey the fields and direct the robot to areas of interest.

The researchers plan to have their first prototypes fabricated by the spring of 2021 and they expect to have a finished model by winter 2022. Once all the components have been designed, they will release the designs and all of the data collected during their project via open source for anyone to use.

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