Global Observer

Argentine greenhouse robot brings automation to the masses

Posting in Design

BUENOS AIRES -- An inexpensive new Argentine robot aims to save local farm workers from dangerous chemicals. It might also bring agricultural automation to countries throughout the developing world.

BUENOS AIRES -- The new Trakür agricultural robot does not have the brains, firepower or complexity of one of the Transformers, but that may be its greatest charm.

The Trakür, which means "fog" in the indigenous Mapuche language, is the fruit of a three-year program undertaken by Argentina's state-run National Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA, for its Spanish initials) to promote automation in Argentine greenhouse agro-business. Designed to apply pesticides in greenhouses, the Trakür is meant to increase production of vegetables and flowers while protecting farm workers--who in the past would apply pesticides by hand--from the toxicity of the chemicals. "When one applies these chemicals in a confined environment like a greenhouse, one’s likelihood of intoxication increases notably," said project coordinator Gerardo Masiá.

In an economy as heavily dependent on agriculture as Argentina's, boosting production and protecting workers are vitally important. But what might be most interesting about the Trakür is its cost. Designed for small farmers who, because of Argentina's regular economic collapses, are not eager or able to make large investments, the robot will have a price tag of about a third of comparable commercial models. Thus, the Trakür could make farm automation possible not only for small farmers in Argentina, but also for those in developing countries around the globe.

Greenhouse robots are generally small wheeled vehicles that carry a tank of pesticide, a sprayer to distribute the liquid, and a processor to run the show. The Trakür is no exception. Developed in the suburbs of Buenos Aires by INTA's rural engineering division, the yellow and white robot resembles a child's Tonka truck (the chassis) with a lighthouse (the sprayer) strapped to the top. But its construction is unique. Weighing in at about 90 lbs. (not including battery), the robot is built entirely from off-the-shelf parts. The robot's operator watches the Trakür's progress through a cheap security camera mounted on its hood, for example.

"It’s not an invention at all. The parts are available from local industry. They are standard components," Masiá said.

A wireless transmitter on the robot sends camera video and sensor data such as the unit's speed, the dose being applied, and the amount of remaining chemical to a computer outside the greenhouse, where an operator directs the Trakür virtually. For its guidance system, the Trakür employs sensors that allow it to follow a 1 mm copper cable, installed on top of or just below the soil's surface, that carries a mild electonic charge of less than one volt.

"The unique part of this robot is guiding system. Instead of using lasers or cameras and algorithms or satellite GPS, this is guided by a cable that emits a electro-magnetic signal. You just have to lay out the route one time and the robot follows it. It's very low cost because cable is very inexpensive and you can add sections or change the route whenever you like. And there’s no danger of electrocution or electric shock because only a very low voltage passes through it," Masiá said.

That is what makes the Trakür cost effective. A GPS system with differential correction would cost an Argentine farmer about $10,000, Masiá said, not including the robot's chassis, motor, pump and electronics.

"Purchased abroad, it’s very likely that would cost you some $20,000 all told. I’m absolutely sure we’re going to be less than a third of that," he said. "In this industry we have family producers who don’t invest a lot. If we were to develop something great at a very elevated price, they never adopt it and it would help no one. You have to focus your product."

Trakür's inexpensive design is of a piece with Argentina's ethos. The country's history of economic collapses, high import taxes and import restrictions has forced Argentines to become skillful at low cost design and working with what is at hand. Locals often speak of ingenio criollo (the local ability to devise ingenious solutions to tough problems) and an improvisational attitude known as atalo con alambre (tie it with wire). In a vein similar to the Trakür, a group at an Argentine university lab has designed a low-cost prosthetic hand called ElectroMioPrótesis (at a price of $2,500 versus a usual $8,000), and the country's National Atomic Energy Commission (CNEA, in Spanish) is pushing forward with the design of a small, low-cost atomic energy reactor called CAREM.

The INTA program that created Trakür is coming to an end this year. According to Masiá, the technology should be licensed to private industry for commercial production by early 2013.

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Ian Mount

Correspondent (Buenos Aires)

Ian Mount is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He has written for the New York Times, New York, Slate, Monocle, the Telegraph (UK) and Food & Wine. He has also produced pieces for public radio shows such as The World and Marketplace, and is the author of The Vineyard at the End of the World: Maverick Winemakers and the Rebirth of Malbec (W.W. Norton, 2012). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure