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University to develop weeding robot for USFS

U of I Coeur d’Alene receives a $139,000 USDA grant.

February 5, 2024

3 Min Read
Forest floor
Forest floor.Oregon State University

University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene researchers have been granted a $139,000 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a robotic weeding system at the U.S. Forest Service’s tree seedling nursery in Coeur d’Alene in what is known as Project Evergreen.

Project Evergreen researchers aim to develop and establish an automated robotic weed detection and eradication system for tree nurseries. The U of I Coeur d’Alene research team will build, test and validate a robotic vision detection system and an actuated weeding system at the Coeur d’Alene nursery. The system will also collect real-time data during use to allow researchers and foresters to monitor the progress and effectiveness of the weeding system.

Garrett Wells, a U of I Coeur d’Alene doctoral student in computer science, will lead Project Evergreen as the principal researcher. John Shovic, director of U of I’s Center for Intelligent Industrial Robotics (CI2R) and associate research professor, and Mary Everett ’20, ’23, ’23, a CI2R postdoctoral researcher, will also contribute to the research project.

“Computer science is attempting to solve increasingly complicated real-world problems using artificial intelligence,” Wells said. “These problems require AI to account for dynamic environments, often with a large range of variability that can’t be simulated. Projects like this make it possible to test known AI techniques and develop more sophisticated algorithms.”

Field testing

In Spring 2024, the team will begin system development with the goal of field testing and validation during the following summer and fall. Data collection and testing will continue through 2025, and potential future work could include system testing on other nursery fields and using weather data to aid in weed management efforts.

“This project is a great example of how robotics and AI can play together to make magic,” Shovic said. “The U.S. Forest Service is looking to dramatically increase their seedling production in the future, and this robot will be a great help. University of Idaho is proud to be part of this path.”

The USFS is increasing reforestation efforts within the national forest system in response to provisions of the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees (REPLANT) Act, according to USFS Program Manager and Senior Scientist Kasten Dumroese. REPLANT Act efforts include an emphasis on an increase in seedling production.

The six nurseries located throughout the United States spend approximately $500,000 annually on weeding, which employees and contractors do mostly by hand. New automated systems are anticipated to reduce costs while improving efficiency and timeliness, ultimately contributing to improved seedling quality and reforestation success.

For the USFS, the project could lead to not only cost-effective operations, but also to healthier and more resilient forests.

“This effort is a win-win for the Forest Service and the university,” Dumroese said. “The university, with its expertise and facilities to develop these types of machines, can also train and develop students proficient in intelligent robotics. For the Forest Service, this collaboration can help the agency meet provisions of the REPLANT Act, meet goals to sustain our nation’s forest and deliver benefits to the public.”

For more information, visit uidaho.edu/engr/programs/cda or contact U of I Coeur d’Alene’s Robotics program at 208-292-2509.

This project is currently recommended for funding to Regents of the University of Idaho by the USDA Forest Service, project entitled “Nursery Automation Demonstration Project.” The total proposed funding is $139,000, of which 100% is the federal share. Project Evergreen is supported by the USFS’s National Center for Reforestation, Nurseries and Genetic Resources.

Source: University of Idaho

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