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Cotton On Mars In The Future?

Monty BainThe idea of growing cotton on Mars seems farfetched right now, but the future of cotton production and harvest has changed rapidly in the past 10 years. Today, Cotton Incorporated and Southeast researchers are developing technology for an army of small autonomous robots, often called swarm bots, that could revolutionize the way cotton is harvested, making it more efficient and profitable for U.S. growers.

Picture this — a swarm of small robots moving down rows of cotton with mechanical arms picking only the bolls that are open and ready. And then, those same robots deposit the fiber into containers where the ginning process begins as the robots move on to more cotton plants down the row. This is what Cotton Incorporated’s Dr. Ed Barnes, Senior Director, Agricultural & Environmental Research, is telling cotton producers to look for in the future.

“What we’re envisioning at Cotton Incorporated is an autonomous bot that could cover 11 acres a day and go through the field 25-30 times in a season,” Barnes says. The robot’s efficient picking style would also mean a swarm of them could finish harvesting in the optimum picking window and reduce the time bolls were exposed to the elements.

Robotic harvesting might dramatically improve fiber quality since bolls would be picked as soon as they open. The robots could travel the same rows again the following days as more bolls mature and open. The robots might also eliminate contamination because they only harvest the cotton fiber, never any of the plastic debris that tends to drift into cotton fields.

Harvest aids and defoliation could potentially be eliminated since the leaves could stay on the plant to protect the bolls. This can save cost for the producer and further improve cotton’s environmental footprint. These robots could be used in seeding, scouting, row-weeding and spraying. They also could provide important data, such as moisture measurements, nutrient management and pest regulation. And, no fuel will be needed. The robots under development will be solar powered.

Barnes estimates the new technology could be field-ready within the next 10 years. The robotic harvesting technology is already here, and now research is being done to piece it all together to work for cotton.

“If robots could be programmed and adapted to do all these different tasks, it would be a game changer and a money saver,” he says.

Southeast Research

automated sensors

Researchers test the phenotyping data logger at the Edisto Research and Education Center in Blackville, South Carolina. The attached sensors on the aluminum extensions measure height, Normalized Difference Vegetation Index and temperature — photo courtesy Dr. Joe Maja, Clemson University

Dr. Glen Rains, a University of Georgia ag engineer, is working on a robot prototype to identify open, optimal bolls in real-time speed. The bolls would then be harvested using a vacuum tube. On the prototype, a camera determines boll location and boll stage and then feeds that data back to a computer, which controls an arm to extract the fiber.

Dr. Joe Marj Maja, an electrical and computer engineer at Clemson University, is testing different methods to determine the best picking technology. He is working with vacuum tubes, spinner technology and multiple picking arms.

“The best picking solution may be a combination of all three methods,” Maja says. He is testing these methods in the field, adding sensors and working on extending battery life in the robots. “There will be applications for these technologies not only in cotton but in many crops in the near future.”

These Southeast researchers are just two of the many who are working on robotic harvesting technologies for cotton and other crops.

Next Steps

While we’re waiting for the robot revolution, Barnes recommends staying on top of precision ag advances with regular visits to Cotton Incorporated’s producer education website, cottoncultivated.cottoninc.com.

Cotton Incorporated provides fact sheets, updates and monthly webinars about a variety of topics affecting the cotton industry.
Cotton Incorporated’s Agricultural and Environmental Research team is always looking for efficient and profitable ways to feed and clothe the world with cotton. Maybe growing cotton on Mars isn’t so farfetched after all.

Monty Bain is the Cotton Board’s regional communication manager for the Southeast. Email him at mbain@cottonboard.org.