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TALK of TECH

A glimpse at the biggest—and, sometimes, the strangest— news from campus.

Swarms (of Robots) That Actually Help Farms Roger Slavens

By now, autonomous robots were supposed to be part of our everyday lives, helping us perform a myriad of tasks at home, work and school, says Magnus Egerstedt, one of Georgia Tech’s top robotics experts and the Schlumberger Professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “The truth is, we’re just not there yet,” Egerstedt says. “This level of autonomy has been challenging.” However, one industry continues to make strides in this area: agriculture. “For instance, today’s farm tractors don’t really 0 2 0

GTALUMNIMAG.COM VOLUME 91 NO.1 2015

need drivers; they use programs and GPS to navigate fields,” he says. “But there’s more that can be done.” Egerstedt and his student researchers are exploring how teams of smaller, more agile robots could work in swarms to perform a host of farming functions—without the downsides of large tractors that compact the soil and devour gas. “Swarm robots could be programmed to tend crops on a micro level, inspecting individual plants for moisture and insects, and then make decisions based on what they find, such as watering or administering pesticides,” Egerstedt says.

“And farmers could control and communicate with them using nothing more than iPad app.” Egerstedt and his team have already developed the fundamental algorithms to carry out some basic farming tasks. “We’ve started by deploying teams of swarm robots in lab-based artificial environments,” he says. “Our goal is to test them in real fields with real crops as early as this summer. Eventually, I hope we can develop robots that operate autonomously and continuously over a full crop-growing cycle.” Gregory Miller

Georgia Tech Alumni Magazine, Vol. 91 No. 1 2015  

A publication of the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.