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A robot that taps trees

There’s a reason why pure Maple syrup has a high price tag when you think of the labor that goes into it. You have to tap the trees with spigots, set up lines to siphon out the sap, collect it all in one big vat and boil it until it thickens up to that sweet brown goo you put on pancakes.

However, engineering students have made the process much easier and completely automated. Students who signed up for the 2014 ASABE Robotics Student Design Competition were asked to make robots that would do all of those tasks without human intervention—except for maybe doing the cooking, but they could probably do that, too.

Not an easy challenge. Especially when you have two graduate students from McGill setting the rules and renowned roboticist Dr. Tony Grift to oversee it all. Four teams competed in the challenge, which took place during the ASABE International Meeting in Montreal, Canada, a place that’s ripe for maple syrup making.

Grift has been organizing the Robotics Competition for nearly a decade now, each time making the task a little harder in order to incorporate the latest technologies that the industry is inventing. Machine vision, laser guidance, tactile sensors, and, perhaps soon, even smell.

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And you don’t have to be an engineer to appreciate it. The technologies are on the bleeding edge of what you might see in the next piece of farm machinery you buy, complete with all of the sensors and communication systems to make it work by itself. Only these robots are on a smaller scale—about knee high and a foot or so wide.

Coming up this July engineering students will go at it again designing the next semi-intelligent life form, only this this year’s design robotic challenge is to simulate a soybean plant to reflect the fact that it is in Louisiana, a major exporter of the crop. The teams are busy now putting on their last-minute eye beams and solar panels. In the meantime, here’s a look back at last year’s challenge.

Tony Grift is in charge of the program each year. Grift authored a series of articles on the future of farming in Resource magazine. You can watch a video interview we did with Grift on the future of robotics in our Big Think Ag series.

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