This robot rolls between corn rows, applying nitrogen fertilizer to mature plants, and using laser-scanning to avoid hitting stalks.
This robot rolls between corn rows, applying nitrogen fertilizer to mature plants, and using laser-scanning to avoid hitting stalks.

A start-up company began testing an autonomous robot for applying sidedress fertilizer in Minnesota this summer. The main trial work appears to have been for use of a late-season application of liquid fertilizer in corn.

This application timing has been tricky because only the tallest of self-propelled sprayers can reach over the top of the corn, and there is definitely injury potential to the crop. The robotic, autonomous applicator tested is small enough to drive in the rows at the base of the corn plants.

As the machine goes down the row, it is applying fertilizer for two rows, one on either side. Of course, it is using GPS for guidance along with LIDAR laser-scanning to stay between rows, explained Kent Cavender-Bares, CEO of the company, Rowbot, the company developing the autonomous applicator.

MIT Technology Review in an article noted that Rowbot developed its machine under a strategic partnership with Carnegie Robotics, which grew out of research at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Rowbot is trying to develop and commercialize its robots using only $2.5 million of seed funding, according to MIT Technology Review. The company reportedly is in discussions with researchers at the University of Illinois to prove the advantages of its approach.

The next step is to deploy multiple Rowbots on large-scale farms, and to add more sensing capacity to the machines. The company is planning to test using its row-width robot concept for fall planting of cover crops into cornfields while the mature corn is still standing.