The Flex-Ro drives itself through the 1-acre field at UNL's Field Phenotyping Facility. Here, it's navigating using a differential GPS system, although it can be controlled using a joystick or a laptop.
Santosh Pitla (left) and Josh Murman say the Flex-Ro is intended for multiple purposes and is built to be modular. So, seed hoppers and sprayer tanks can be added, and an electronic control unit can be added to control different applications. In the future, additional purposes may include seeding cover crops and selective weed control.
IN THE FIELD
After building and tweaking the machine for the past three years, this marks the first year the Flex-Ro is in the field. This time, it's just to collect phenotyping data and test how it navigates using its auto-guidance system and obstacle detection.
Josh Murman, UNL Biological Systems Engineering graduate student, designed and built the controller specifically for the Flex-Ro using components donated by Danfoss Power Solutions. This includes a joystick to control the Flex-Ro.
The Field Phenotyping Facility at the Eastern Nebraska Research and Extension Center is known as one of the only places in the U.S. using a Spidercam to collect plant phenotype data. This year, Santosh Pitla's goal for the Flex-Ro is collecting phenotype data and correlating it to data collected by the Spidercam — seen behind the Flex-Ro driven by Josh Murman.
CROP CANOPY DATA
Mounted to the toolbar are several sensors to measure phenotypic characteristics of plants, including an RGB (red, green, blue) camera, a spectrometer to measure reflectance, temperature and humidity sensors, and ultrasonic sensors to measure height.
Santosh Pitla and Josh Murman are testing the Flex-Ro's ability to navigate while avoiding obstacles. Currently, with a single obstacle sensor, there is only about a 70-degree field of view, and one of Pitla's goals is to install additional obstacle sensors. He also hopes to secure funding for a real-time kinematic GPS system.
Each wheel of the Flex-Ro is equipped with a gearbox from a center pivot, which allow small electric motors to achieve the high-torque requirement for individual wheel steering required by the Flex-Ro.