Oregon BEST funds semi-autonomous electric vehicle

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Oregon BEST has announced a new round of commercialization funding that is helping electric farm vehicle startup Rogue Rovers, LLC collaborate with Oregon Tech to design, test and build a semi-autonomous, all-terrain electric vehicle that can be used in specialty farming applications to improve pest management, reduce fertilizer waste and make it safer to operate in orchards and vineyards.

Although precision agriculture techniques have been embraced for row crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans, specialty agriculture is more challenging due to steep topography and the fact trees and vineyard infrastructure often remains in the ground for years, presenting challenges for vehicle designers and physical obstacles for vehicles.

Melissa Brandao, CEO and founder of Ashland, Ore.-based Rogue Rovers, believes smart electric vehicles like the one her company is developing will eventually replace the gas powered ATVs and small tractors currently used by many specialty agriculture farmers.

"We're going to see more and more precision in the specialty ag space," she said. "I don't know of anyone else developing ground-based autonomous vehicles for this sector, but there's no doubt that this is up and coming."

Equipped with an array of data collection and navigational tools, the vehicle under development at Oregon Tech can be programmed to navigate with or without a human driver, apply pesticides and herbicides more efficiently and build a virtual orchard database that includes plant history, soil type, areas of plant stress, temperature and humidity readings, etc. It can wirelessly communicate this data from field to farmer.

The new vehicle will also have a lower center of gravity and the overall design will allow safer entry and exit by drivers.

"We're pleased to be investing in another Oregon ag-based startup that has the potential to help farmers tap the benefits of emerging technologies to reduce inputs and boost yields," said Ken Vaughn, director of commercialization programs at Oregon BEST. "And it's wonderful to have current students gaining real-world experience from projects like this one."

The funding is supporting a student-faculty team at Oregon Tech that includes students studying mechanical engineering, robotics and software development. The team is designing a prototype vehicle from the ground up, and will also incorporate Lidar, cameras, GPS navigation, and enhance Rogue Rover's "Farm Dogg" intelligence and navigation system.

"This project offers our students hands-on experience in cutting-edge engineering technologies by involving them from the initial design, through the building, and finally the field testing," said Don Lee, a professor at Oregon Tech who leads the student team. "This is a very interdisciplinary project and integrates a wide variety of engineering fields to innovate this new agricultural application."

Rogue Rovers was just named one of five finalists in the Southern Oregon Angel Investment Network, and Brandao said the $25,000 from Oregon BEST should help the company attract additional financial support.

"For us to receive funding from Oregon BEST offers a tremendous benefit because they are very well-respected and do an incredible amount of due diligence, which gives us a lot of credibility at the national level and will enable us to leverage additional funds," she said. "This initial funding is just what we needed to get started."

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