'Roomba of the cornfield?' Minnesota company's farm robots show promise

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Instead of firing up the tractors, farmers may soon be rolling out the robots. Or the Rowbots, one Minnesota company hopes.

A Fillmore County soil expert tells Corn and Soybean Digest the work done by a robotic planter on his farm was "pretty decent."

But Minnesota understatement is no foreign language to the three brothers behind Rowbot Systems.

Their Minneapolis startup company has developed a machine small enough to fit between corn rows and nimble enough to drive itself as it applies fertilizer or plants cover crops.

Corn and Soybean Digest says the Rowbot navigates using GPS, is equipped with the same type of sensors used in Google's driverless vehicles, and has four-wheel drive to help it get through rough terrain.

A demonstration video shows the machine making its way down a half-mile row of corn this summer.

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What does it do?

The Rowbots that were tested in Minnesota cornfields this summer and fall did two things.

They applied fertilizer late in the growing season. A September item in the MIT Technology Review noted that's when a nitrogen boost can be most helpful to crops. But rolling heavy machinery between rows can damage corn stalks.

A late-season application by a Rowbot could allow growers to use less fertilizer in the spring, saving them money and reducing the amount of nitrogen that runs off into waterways, MIT says.

In addition, Rowbots planted cover crops between corn rows. Rowbot's website explains that the practice of keeping soil covered through the winter is gaining popularity, but waiting until after the harvest to plant those cover crops leaves farmers only a small window of time.

Rowbots – like the one used on the aforementioned Fillmore County farm – can plant cover crops in late summer without disturbing the corn.

National Public Radio visited with the founders of Rowbot a year ago, which is when Kent Cavender-Bares said he and his brothers had joked about their self-propelled machines being "the Roomba of the cornfield."

Cavender-Bares serves as CEO of Rowbot. John and Charlie Bares are a robotics engineer and dairy farmer, respectively. Their product is still in the developmental stage, using seed money from investors. MIT's Technology Review reports the next stage of development will involve deploying multiple Rowbots on industrial-scale farms.

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