Custom Vineyard Robot
Will and Jerry Natzel are getting help with their 12 acres of grapevines this spring from a robotic assistant. Frustrated with the need for repeated spraying for Japanese beetles, the Natzels started looking for a robotic alternative. They found one with the help of South Dakota State University (SDSU) mechanical engineering students.
“My dad is a mechanical engineer, and I have a degree in design and architecture, so we set out to build an autonomous sprayer,” says Will Natzel. “We applied for and received a grant from USDA’s Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education (SARE) program to build a robot.”
Jerry Natzel graduated from the mechanical engineering department at SDSU, so he reached out to the robotics club for help.
The students there were eager to get involved. Natzel shared his expertise and the grant to help cover costs. Last summer, the first-generation prototype was up and running. Students used a radio frequency controller with a remote joystick to control the self-propelled sprayer.
The 48-in. wide work cart is built around a modified zero-turn lawn mower with 5 to 6-ft. booms to either side. It is equipped with a 48-volt battery pack and a 25-gal. spray tank.
“The students removed the motor, drive system, deck, and seat,” says Natzel. “They added batteries and electric drive motors on the two rear wheels and installed a proprietary control board. The bulk of the work done on it has been software development.”
After successful trials in 2022 on a few acres, the sprayer will be back in the field this coming summer. Changes include GPS guidance and a sonar-based eStop safety sensor for obstacle avoidance. The students will be testing out the GPS and the additional programming they have done, as well as other sensors.
The GPS guidance system was chosen over vision system guidance for its versatility. Natzel notes that it will allow the robot to be programmed for a particular route or driven on the route. Once a route has been recorded, the robot can repeat the path as needed.
Working with the students has been a real positive. He recommends others consider doing the same when taking on a robot-type project.
“We were able to give them a starting point with the grant, as well as end goals and some guidance,” says Natzel. “However, there’s nothing like 23 students with software backgrounds and electrical engineering training to tackle a project like this.”
Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Jerome Natzel, IFM Brands, 1560 Woodlawn Ave., Owatonna, Minn. 55060 (ph 507-475-1581;;

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2023 - Volume #47, Issue #2