Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery Project

Researchers from the University of California have been working on a project to build a system for autonomous irrigation since 2016, Called Rapid (Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery) and hope to have it in use on a farm by summer 2020. The system uses water emitters attached to holes in irrigation lines between crops which control the amount of water discharged, while a small autonomous robot monitors the whole process.

As agricultural irrigation consumes 70% of the world's freshwater, this project will address one of the most pressing needs in environmental sustainability. Emerging sensing technologies such as UAVs equipped with heterogeneous sensors can provide farmers with detailed maps of water use and ground conditions. However, closing the sensing-actuation loop to adjust irrigation at the plant level remains an unsolved challenge. Some proposed solutions rely on networks of motorized wireless actuators that are costly and prone to failure in field conditions. This goal of this project is to investigate an alternative approach dubbed, RAPID-Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation Delivery.

RAPID is a co-robotic system where a team of humans and robots move through the fields to adjust low-cost adjustable drip irrigation emitters at the plant level. RAPID will be designed for cost-conscious farm managers to be retrofit to existing irrigation systems and incrementally expanded to increase irrigation precision and plant yield, reduce water usage, and with robots, permit thousands of emitters to be incrementally adjusted.

The project will involve the design, development, and evaluation of a series of prototypes of low-cost, robust co-robotic systems compatible with existing drip irrigation infrastructure in vineyards and orchards. The project will build on prior work in irrigation modeling and develop feedback algorithms compatible with available sensing technologies using diffusion models to optimize desired emitter settings. The project will also extend results in Orienteering Planning to advise humans and guide robots about when, where, and how to act to achieve desired field conditions at the plant level. Field evaluations will be performed with farm managers and growers in the wine producing regions of California (Central Valley, Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties).

This project will develop the scientific foundations for a co-robotic approach to precision agriculture, including new models, designs, metrics, algorithms, and experimental data that will be published and openly shared. The project will build on the combined expertise of an interdisciplinary team including experts in robot agriculture, planning, control, minimal design, robust manipulation, and water management.

The RAPID co-robotic system has potential to significantly reduce water consumption globally and in the US, while increasing crop yield, quality, and uniformity, and exploring new opportunities for the US farm equipment industry. This project will support under-represented minority graduate and undergraduate students, drawing on resources at UC Merced, a federally recognized Hispanic-Serving institution. Because of the unprecedented drought in the Southwest United States in recent years, there is great regional interest in water conservation. The project will also engage the public and K-12 students in this research through public curricula, lectures, summer research opportunities, and an open design competition.

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