The average age of the U.S. farmer is 59 years old—a number that’s been on the rise for more than four decades. In fact, one-third of U.S. farmers are older than 65. Most own small operations and still do a lot of manual labor themselves. It’s hard work, and their bodies feel it—it’s not uncommon for older farmers to have back pain or suffer from arthritis.
However, engineers and researchers at Virginia Tech have an innovative way to help: Robotic exoskeletons designed with farmers in mind. “We want to help farmers keep doing what they’re doing, but with less work and less wear and tear on their bodies,” says Dr. Alexander Leonessa, professor of mechanical engineering.
“We want to help farmers keep doing what they’re doing, but with less work and less wear and tear on their bodies.”
–Dr. Alexander Leonessa, professor, mechanical engineering
Exoskeletons are robotic wearables that reduce the pressure and stress on human bodies, not to mention increase their strength. For instance, Leonessa’s team of students and engineers at Virginia Tech is working on a robotic glove that enables farmers to grab and grip things. His counterparts at the university are developing robotic back and knee braces that make actions like stepping up into a tractor or lifting a box of produce exponentially easier.
The idea is not to offer farmers high-tech gadgets that they’ll never actually use. Instead, researchers envision ways that emerging technologies can relieve the burden of farmer’s daily work, and improve their quality of life in the process.
The Strawberry Challenge
A traditional knee or back brace can help a wearer prevent injury, but it’s what Leonessa calls passive support. “There’s no power in it,” he says. Exoskeletons have a power source, from batteries, that gives the user additional strength. It’s not quite superhero-like, but for the user, it may feel pretty close. “It makes you feel stronger,” Leonessa says.
The work that the devices enable—lifting, stepping, grasping, squatting—is simple, but the technology is advanced. The devices are small, and the researchers want to keep them that way. To that end, they rely on a small microprocessor that the team pre-programs. “Our big design constraint is to keep the external appearance of the devices as close as possible to what the farmers are currently using, so it must look like a regular glove, but it can do so much more,” Leonessa says. “The knee brace must be wearable under regular pants, so it is not visible.”
“Our big design constraint is to keep the external appearance of the devices as close as possible to what the farmers are currently using, so it must look like a regular glove, but it can do so much more.”
The variety of tasks that farmers perform also makes developing the devices a distinct challenge. The exoskeletons are autonomous, meaning that they anticipate what the user is going to do and then adjust the strength to match. For example, Leonessa notes that farmers may use the same robotic glove to pick strawberries and move bales of hay. The glove needs to be able to pick the fruit without squishing it, power-up to lift 50-plus pounds, and be able to tell the difference between the two tasks.
Leonessa’s work is funded via a National Science Foundation grant aimed at improving safety and enhancing the quality of life for farmers. Partnerships with companies such as TORC Robotics and nonprofits that work directly with farmers ensure that the ideas developed by Leonessa’s team will meet the needs of farmers in the field. His team hopes to have prototypes ready for farmers this fall.
Exoskeletons and Beyond
Robotic exoskeletons represent just one tool in a barn full of robotic solutions that aim to reimagine farming. A host of researchers and startups have developed robots that pull weeds, harvest produce, and even determine how much pesticide to use on a crop. Consider the TerraSentia, an autonomous, under-canopy robot using technology developed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The self-driving robot maneuvers around fields—looking a bit like a square Roomba—sending out thousands of laser pulses. The latter scans the plants, gathering detailed information about their health, height, and even produce quality. Growers can then use the data, which is typically collected by hand, to breed better crops the next season.
In many cases, expensive robots and automated machinery seem like technology better suited for large-scale, commercial farming operations that have the budgets to match. But small family farms account for 90 percent of all U.S. farms—and making technology accessible to them is on researchers’ minds. “Our goal is to eventually get the cost of the [TerraSentia] robots under $1,000,” Girish Chowdhary, the agricultural engineer behind the project, told The New York Times.
For small-scale farmers, investing in robotic devices could end up being quite cost-effective. Leonessa notes that a farmer could spend thousands retrofitting one tractor with a hydraulic step to make getting into the machine easier. But then what about the other machines? A robotic wearable, on the other hand, moves with the farmer and applies to more than one task.
“I hope one day in the future, these devices will be readily available for farmers in need,” Leonessa says. “We don’t want farmers to work to the age of 90, but we do want them to reach the age of 60 without having the problems they have.” And with a strong assist from some emerging tech, that seems more than possible.
Photo by Erik Aquino via Unsplash