Mechanical engineers collaborate in exploration of robotic options for farmers

farmers roboticsFarmers are among America’s oldest workers. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, in the past 30 years, the average age of U.S. farmers has grown from 50 years to 58 years old.

Two National Science Foundation grants of approximately $1.5 million, awarded to Virginia Tech researchers, will bring robotics and technology assistance to one of the largest groups of workers in Virginia. The research goal is to combine technologies to provide physical safety and enhance quality of life for Virginia farmers.

The first project partners with industry to use robotics to aid farmers with mobility impairments. The Partnership for Innovation grant is a collaborative effort between Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and with community partners, AgrAbility Virginia, a program that assists farmers with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities that are impeding their ability to work safely, effectively, and productively. The research will aid farmers through the use of wearable robotics, such as exosuits and other robotic apparatus, targeting back, knee, and hand applications.

The Research Coordination Network grant, the second project, is a collaboration with U.S. and international researchers to enhance technology on mid-sized farms.

Alexander Leonessa, associate professor of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering is the principal investigator for the Partnership for Innovation grant and a co-investigator for Research Coordination Network grant. Leonessa is partnering with Virginia Tech colleagues Divya Srinivasan, assistant professor in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and Kim Niewolny, associate professor in agricultural, leadership, and community education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, on both grants.

Partnership for Innovation grant

Working with industry partners, such as TORC Robotics, Leonessa and researchers will use robotics systems they develop to generate additional discoveries as they learn from farmers who partner with the program. Working with AgrAbility Virginia and its statewide rural rehabilitation network and using human-centered design approaches, the project team will address the human factors component of the technology and the need to educate farmers to its benefits and capabilities. The team will evaluate the farmers’ daily activity and the issues they encounter. The human-factors and agriculture experts on the team will work with farmers to provide inputs to the design processes.

“The types of robotics we’re looking at are things we have already developed, but need to be modified to the individual and adapted to the particular function,” explained Leonessa. “We are working with Total Motion Physical Therapy to provide baseline information on farmers who volunteer with the program. Then we work to personalize the robotics suit specific to the individual farmer’s needs.”

The work will initially focus on mobility impairments associated with an aging demographic such as arthritic hands and knees, but also devices to assist with lifting.

Physical therapists will first evaluate farmers and provide ability impairment data so researchers can build individualized devices. Farmers will then take the devices back to the physical therapy team to test that the technology meets the goal.

“These devices will be something the farmers will wear to fulfill their daily tasks in a more comfortable way,” said Leonessa. “Many of our older farmers have age-related issues, such as arthritis, and by providing this technology we can ensure they can complete their tasks. The goal is not for farmers to work until they are 90 years old, but to allow them to work with less fatigue and be able to continue to do what they love to do while staying healthy.”

The devices will assist with vasrious functions, including movements associated with farming, such as using a shovel or driving a tractor. For example, industry partner, TORC Robotics, will evaluate implementing remote-controlled farm equipment. In this case, farmers would need the dexterity necessary to use a joystick.

By the end of the three-year project, the participating farmers will have prototype gear to wear that will assist them in their daily activity.

“The farmers in our study can’t wait,” said Leonessa. “They recognize their own limitations and know what their problems are and are looking for a way to improve their lives.”

Research Coordination Network grant

While the first project focuses on providing a service to individual farmers, the Research Coordination Network grant examines the bigger picture, bringing together expertise from around the world to look at how technology can be used to help mid-sized farms compete in an increasingly challenging and automated agricultural economy. The network brings together researchers in technology, human factors, sustainability, systems engineering, STEM education, and outreach, with the goal of tackling the problem from a multidisciplinary perspective. Currently, the grant consists of 21 researchers from Virginia Tech, Purdue, Arizona State, University of Iowa, and universities in Canada, Ireland, and Australia.

The program is part of the first-ever Convergence Award from the NSF to enhance small and mid-level farm viability through a systems-based research network that links technology with sustainable development and practice. The Convergence Award is one of eight focused on “Work at the Human Technology Frontier,” and one of two earned by Virginia Tech, the other featuring research on autonomous trucks by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

As the network develops, the NSF aims to gather research to develop tools to share human-technology partnerships, improve worker performance, increase career longevity and job satisfaction, and promote lifelong learning. The Research Coordination Network grant will facilitate the collaboration of a number of disciplines, including engineering, computer science, education, and the biological, physical, social, and behavioral sciences.

“Normally, when you get a grant, you have identified a problem and an approach to solve the problem,” said Leonessa. “We have identified the problem, but not the solution. Our task is to build a network of researchers to look at the problem from different perspectives, see what solutions exist around the world, and look at alternatives. Those alternatives then become new proposals with an identified problem and approaches to solve the problem.”

The group is planning a workshop on this topic, which will take place in Arlington, Virginia, in spring 2018.

Members of the Partnership for Innovation grant include principal investigator Leonessa and co-principal investigators Srinivasan; Alan Asbeck, mechanical engineering; Donatus Ohanehi, Virginia Tech/Wake Forest School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences; Niewolny, agricultural, leadership and community education/AgrAbility; TORC Robotics; Total Motion Physical Therapy; and Easter Seals UPC Virginia and North Carolina.

Members of the Research Coordination Network grant include principal investigator Srinivasan and co-principal investigators Leonessa and Niewolny.

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