An autonomous field robot delivers nonchemical pest protection
Predicting when in the growing cycle pests will appear is difficult, making regular treatment necessary and costly for farmers. The TRIC Robotics team, led by Adam Stager and involving several UD undergraduate students, has developed an autonomous field robot with the ability to travel up and down the rows in a strawberry field, delivering nonchemical pest protection right to the strawberries themselves. The field robot leverages UVC light technology, developed by USDA scientists.
Startup with roots at UD provides chemical-free pest control for strawberry farmers
“I was always thinking, ‘This is a pencil, but it could be a better pencil if…,’” said Stager, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).
Stager also is the founder of TRIC Robotics, a startup company focused on offering strawberry farmers a viable alternative to pesticides.
The TRIC Robotics team, which includes several UD undergraduate students, has developed an autonomous field robot with the ability to travel up and down the rows in a strawberry field, delivering nonchemical pest protection right to the strawberries themselves. The field robot leverages UVC light technology, developed by USDA scientists.
ABOVE: Entrepreneur Adam Stager, founder of TRIC Robotics, believes uplifting the creative talents of others is an important part of building a business. He might be the idea guy, but he says each member of the TRIC Robotics team plays a critical role in the company’s success. Pre-pandemic photo by Kathy Atkinson
“Think of it like a car-sized Roomba, but instead of cleaning carpets, it carries a special UVC light that kills pests originally targeted by pesticides,” said Vishnu Somasundaram, a biomedical engineering major and one of the first undergraduate students to join the project.
Some pesticides are harmful to the environment and toxic. Predicting when in the growing cycle pests will appear is difficult, making regular treatment necessary and costly for farmers.
UVC light comes from sunlight, and it disrupts a living organism’s DNA. The more complex the organism, the more time this disruption takes. In the environment, UVC light is blocked by the ozone layer. Targeted at strawberry plants, UVC light can kill pests in as little as 15 seconds of treatment. It has been shown to be as effective as pesticides on the three largest yield reducers for strawberries: gray mold, powdery mildew and two-spotted spider mites.
The TRIC team has preprogrammed the robot to operate at night, keeping humans and animals out of harm’s way and freeing up the agricultural land during the day. Software integrated into the robot’s design provides farmers with eyes on each berry, helping them reliably predict how many strawberries their crops will yield and when — a bonus for supermarkets and other sellers seeking a sustainable supply of the perennially popular fruit for their customers.
Strawberries are grown in every state in the United States and every province of Canada. And according to the USDA, the average American consumes approximately 3.4 pounds of fresh strawberries per year. Low in calories (around 50 calories per cup) and high in fiber and vitamin C, strawberries pack a healthy punch. However, strawberries also are considered among the top produce considered to have high concentrations of pesticides, leading researchers to search for chemical-free solutions to keep this tasty fruit pest-free.
Adam Stager is the founder of TRIC Robotics, a startup company focused on alleviating pesticides for strawberries using UVC light. Stager earned his doctoral degree at the University of Delaware in mechanical engineering in early 2020, under the advisement of Professor Herbert Tanner. In addition to running his startup, Stager is now a postdoctoral researcher with UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He earned his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UD in 2011.
Know when to pivot
Adam Stager first encountered robotics as an undergraduate mechanical engineering major at UD, working on sensor technology for a shoe to detect walking patterns in people with Parkinson’s disease. He learned design by building longboard skateboards as an independent study to explore how forces and stressors affect materials. With each opportunity, Stager found himself dreaming up businesses, considering material costs, market price and product benefits for buyers.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Stager worked as a project engineer alongside robots meant to improve manufacturing efficiency. While his mind kept generating creative ideas, long work hours and a hefty commute left little time to launch a side business. So, Stager changed course, opting to return to school. As an entrepreneur today, Stager believes mentoring can help others take risks he once thought were out of reach.
“There are probably a lot of people like me in the world who could make a really big difference, but they don’t have the luxury to explore their ideas,” said Stager. “It’s nice to give others the opportunity I’ve had.”
Like many startups with humble beginnings, the TRIC Robotics team operates out of Stager’s home in Newark, Delaware. He describes the workspace as very “out-of-the-garage startup” with students sprawled at computers in the basement or working side-by-side on the robot in the adjacent garage.
While Stager is the big thinker behind the idea, he said that teamwork has been critical to the startup’s success.
“With robotics you need lots of different brains to make things work,” said Stager. “I can offer guidance, but it is the skills of every individual that make it possible. I need Ansel, an undergrad from Bard College, who is much better at programming than me, and Jake who is better at design, and so on.”
Early products by TRIC Robotics included smaller robots for disaster management and environmental data collection, but Stager quickly realized the margin for repeat business was small. UD support, training in entrepreneurship, and conversations with experts facilitated by UD’s Horn Entrepreneurship helped Stager shift the company’s focus toward agriculture. Collaborations with CANR faculty allowed him to test the robots in cornfields before switching to strawberries.
Recently, UD undergrads Jake Lubsen and Andrew Slomski have worked to perfect the robot frame, while Trevor Foresta and Will Cantera developed software to ensure the robot performs predictably in the field and collects the proper data. Meanwhile, Joe Lockhard and Vishnu Somasundaram designed and manufactured specialized reflectors to deliver equal amounts of the UVC light to all strawberries in the field. The students also developed a safety system to turn off the UVC light in the presence of people. Srinath Venkatesh, the team’s digital media manager, created the company’s website and chronicles the team’s progress on social media.
Earlier this spring and summer, the team tested the treatment’s effectiveness in strawberry fields at Fifer Orchards, Delaware’s largest commercial strawberry grower, in Camden-Wyoming, and at UD’s campus in Georgetown, Delaware. Pilot testing at Fifer showed positive results with similar yields between chemical and UV-C treatment. In Georgetown, the team ended up trimming back many of the plants to make the field manageable with fewer people due to the coronavirus pandemic. A third East Coast pilot project at the USDA site in Kearneysville, West Virginia, is still up and running, and planning is currently underway for five additional pilot projects in 2021 — two of them located on organic farms in California.
“I think automation can really change the way we do things,” said Stager.
ABOVE: Adam Stager points to the prototype mechanism that steers the front wheel of the robot, while the TRIC team members look on. Pictured left to right: Stager, Nick Ulizio, Will Cantera, Srinath Venkatesh, Trevor Foresta, Jake Lubsen and Vishnu Somasundaram. Pre-pandemic photo by Kathy Atkinson
“With robotics you need lots of different brains to make things work, I can offer guidance, but it is the skills of every individual that make it possible. I need Ansel, an undergrad from Bard College, who is much better at programming than me, and Jake who is better at design, and so on.”
— Adam Stager
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