GEORGETOWN, Del. — On a summer afternoon, sunshine bathed the farmland, and what’s growing, in much-needed light.
“We're focusing on strawberries,” said Adam Stager of TRIC Robotics.
Synonymous with summer, strawberries are a crop often targeted by all kinds of pests.
“The pests that we're treating against, it's specifically spider mites, powdery mildew and gray mold,” he said.
Normally, getting rid of those pests would involve using chemical pesticides. However, this is organic farming, so that’s out of the question. As the sun slowly sets, though, a different solution rolls into view.
“You can think of it just like a giant field Roomba,” Stager said.
This self-roving robot is treating the plants with ultraviolet light. Used several times a week, it illuminates crops with UV light, killing the pests, with no impact on the crop.
“It just goes up and down the rows, carrying the lights in a very specific way, so that we can use the light in place of the chemicals,” said Stager, founder of TRIC Robotics, which created the robot.
With funding from the National Science Foundation and working with researchers from the USDA, the robot is now being deployed at test pilot farms in California, West Virginia, and at the University of Delaware’s agriculture research center.
“My job is just to operate the robot,” said Fahim Chowdhury. “I'm just going to put the robot on auto-mode, so the robot will run by itself.”
Chowdhury sets the robot into place and then, using GPS signals to self-navigate, the robot gets to work.
“What's great is that it has a DNA mechanism that basically inactivates the way that the pests reproduce,” Stager said. “So, we can effectively eliminate the need for chemicals because we can affect the way the plants, the pathogens on the plants, affect the yields.”
More yields can mean more organic crops, which could lead to lower prices at the grocery store.
According to the USDA, organic farms are located in nearly every state with the highest amount of organic farmland found in California (965,000 acres), Montana (356,000 acres), New York (323,000 acres), Wisconsin (251,000 acres) and Texas (246,000 acres).
For TRIC Robotics, the pilot tests have gone well so far. It’s a growing market they’re hoping to tap into on a larger scale.
“It is watching out for your crops all season long,” Stager said. “The farmers, especially with specialty crops, are so welcoming to new technology. Having something that is a non-chemical solution that really works, is something that they're looking for.”
That something might now include a rolling, silent sentinel on the horizon.