Tech from Yesteryear

After every sprint I have started getting in the habit of doing a cleanup.  The last cleanup yielded some interesting pieces of equipment my ancestors used to do similar tasks performed by the tech on board the Pee Dee Agbot. The Pee Dee agbot is being constructed on land which was the county experimental farm in the early 1900’s.  Some of the technology from yesteryear is still laying around.

A navigation piece a single axis compass which has been supplanted by a 3 axis magnetometer.

Before cell phones CB radios with a very long antenna was a preferred method of long range communication.

Mass sensing was certainly slower using a balance rather than strain gauges tied to load cells.

Taking a picture was very laborious.  This portable field camera, which is older than 1948, was used for extension work.


Design – An Example of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

A story was passed down in my family which may have been lost had it not been for the Agbot Challenge.  Agbot building requires a certain degree of scrounging for parts.  Scrounging for parts is something two young men were doing around the turn of the nineteenth century at a hardware store in Elizabeth City, North Carolina where my great grandmother worked. She asked the men, who were two brothers about her age, why they needed the parts.  After a bit of shock from hearing their response she shared the information with her supervisor.  Her supervisor laughed and said something to the effect of, “you mean to tell me that two boys — named Orville and Wilbur — are going to build a machine that can fly!!!”

The Wright Flyer Moments After Lift-Off

Orville and Wilbur Wright became very famous for building a machine which could fly.  Getting a new machine to fly for the first time was something others were trying; however, the Wright brothers succeeded where others had failed.  These two worked together continually bouncing ideas off each other.  They tested those ideas while carefully documenting their results.  Despite lacking even a high school education the two brothers managed to engineer one of the most influential innovations of the modern era.

The Bad

In Virginia during the American Civil War the Union Army had an observation balloon camp which was visited by a German named Ferdinand von Zeppelin.  Zeppelin was inspired by the observation balloons to develop a better way to make postal deliveries. He came up with a rigid framed airship.  The idea of the airship captivated German engineers, and with the aid of some industrialist rigid framed airships, or Zeppelins, went into production.  Zeppelins started being faster and able to carry larger payloads than the first airplanes; however, Zeppelins lost their popularity when a zeppelin, famous for the wrong reasons, was filled with hydrogen when the design called for helium.

The zeppelin was designed using solid design processes by highly educated engineers and skilled industrialist,  One pull against the design specifications in one zeppelin marked all zeppelins forever.

The Ugly

One curator from the Smithsonian had a friend named Langley who was conducting tests of a flying machine called aerodrome.  Despite the fact the aerodrome could not be controlled, the Smithsonian put together an exhibit showing the many drawings of different designs Langley had drawn largely on his own.  Later own, many of the aeronautics clubs felt obligated to correct the erroneous displays of the flying machine which had little influence on history.  The design process Langley used is referred to as “design in isolation” and is more than likely the reason the design never really worked.

Our design process has unfortunately turned out to be a mix of all three of these design processes.  One lesson I learned the hard way is any design done in isolation (ex. our Cricket NX-01 design) is highly likely to go the way of the aerodrome.  Politely dismissing suggestions for designs produced largely in isolation can be done by retelling the story of the aerodrome. Good engineering practices are essential if anything as sophisticated as an Agbot is expected to work.

Personally, I believe gaining experience is a big part of participating in any challenge and I hope others can learn from our team’s hard earned experience.

The Farm Gate as a Phase Gate

In project management terminology a phase gate, a design gate, a or stage gate is a pre-planned moment for either a go or a no-go decision.

The go or no-go decision is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult due to the early emotions of hope and optimism during early planning.  The design planning phase, which is sometimes called the honeymoon phase, is the time when engineering and project management skill means everything so as to screen bottlenecks, failure points, time hogs, or behavioral anti-patterns before the project moves on to the implementation phase.  The implementation phase, driven by commitment and dedication, is the drive to product testing.  Testing, to borrow from agricultural idiom, is when the wheat is separated from the chaff.  The testing process requires both patience and perseverance.  When everything clicks, design teams experience the thrill of profitability.  When it does not, plans are made for a closeout.

The Agbot competition was an excellent opportunity to get a realistic view of the team’s ability to create a product with marketability.  The open market is tougher than a well hosted competition.  Competitors in the open market communicate less openly.  Self-appointed critics from the open market are not as qualified contest judges.  Performance criteria are vague compared to contest criteria.  Consequences for failure are far greater in the open market than in a challenge.   And, perhaps most directly affecting the team, a phase gate may be more difficult to set up than a contest involving a set date, time, and a physical farm gate.

With the gates closed and another year done, this team is doing some very serious regrouping.

Special thanks to all of the Cricket project contributors including:

  • Planters offered at a discount by T& T tractor
  • Seed Meters were offered at a steep discount by Precision Planting.
  • Both Florence Hydraulics and Professional Hydraulics in Florence, South Carolina Offered discounts on parts.
  • Monsanto donated test corn.
  • Dillon Tractor donated planter parts.
  • Team Members Andy Herring, JR Edens, and Robby Jowers contributed many hours free of charge.

At the moment, the Cricket is a no-go. The no-go decision is certainly reversible because it has a strong frame, power to spare, and several ahead-of-the-market ideas; however, certain debilitating lock-ins, which led to the downfall of both projects, need to be resolved.  To resolve these lock-ins I relinquished control of the Cricket project with the electronics in tact hoping the Cricket can be made farm-worthy before the window of opportunity on this technology closes forever.

The Yamaha project is a go.  The go decision was made because not only are its lock-ins innocuous, but also the completed parts on this machine function.  Functionality with this machine, operating on a robust wireless network, will last till the machine runs out of fuel.  Its range of operation is confirmed to be half of a mile with a clear line of site.  This machine can be tele-operated and is ready to accept software.  Within the software is an isolation layer which allows the same software to run completely different machines.  This machine is ready for further development of advanced electronic capabilities.

A Real Grizzly, Accept No Substitutes, KITTENS!!!

A Real Grizzly Being Prepped for the Weed and Feed

The Grizzly ATV donated to our team by Yamaha was partially prepped for conversion into a Grizzly ATV… as in Grizzly Awesome Terrain Vehicle … to avoid confusion with other robotic units and actual Grizzly Bears.

A redundant failsafe controller was installed on the cricket.  The cricket is designed so if any juncture loses power, the vehicle comes to a stop.

The shop kitty was too occupied to approve…  Since the start of the project, the drone room’s occupancy has grown from one drone and two cats to two drones and seven cats.



The Preflight Prefarm Checklist – Let’s Introduce 21st Century Farm Tech Right the First Time

This is an open letter to the entire agriculture community.

Agriculture is getting ready to make a similar transition aviation made in the early 20th century.  In the early 20th century the World War II era bombers transitioned from two to four engines.  Four engines increased the complexity of the bomber to the point skilled pilots were losing their planes and their lives.  The loss of life prompted the creation of a preflight checklist.  The preflight checklist saved lives and made flying safer.

“If checklists make flying safer, then where is the pre-surgery checklist?” was a question posed by neurosurgeon Antal Gawande in his 2009 book “The Checklist Manifesto.”  In this book he points out a checklist prevents mistakes of ineptitude.  Mistakes of ineptitude differed from mistakes of ignorance.  Mistakes of ignorance come from a lack of knowledge, while mistakes of ineptitude come from an improper use of knowledge.

The knowledge of a surgeon is vast; however, this vastness means little if, during surgery, a single gauze goes missing.  A missing gauze left inside a patient can cause surgical complications.  These complications could be easily avoided with a routine checklist.

Simple checklists could have saved many lives if introduced earlier in both the aviation and medicals fields.  The field of agriculture is on the brink of undergoing the same complexity transition, so checklists need to be introduced into the future of farming vision now.

The following is a ficticious example of how a prefarm checklist could be envisioned..

An Early Agbot on the Move


The farmer gets up before daybreak and pulls out the pre-farm checklist.  The pre-farm checklist is the farmer’s personal selection from a composite of suggestions from fellow farmers, local and national farm organizations, and the agbot manufacturer.  The famer even gets a discount from the insurance company for faithful use of the pre-farm checklist.  The checklist has suggestions for improving yield, protecting the environment, and assuring safety. Many suggestions came from the local government; however, the government does not mandate the checklist.  The ever evolving checklist becomes the pride of the agriculture community as the checklist is the first line of defense ensuring agbots are used appropriately.


Going through the list, the farmer catches a few things.  The first is a leak in one of the lead-acid batteries which is promptly replaced.  The second involves his agbot being derived from a converted tractor.  The tractor is not fully converted back to automatic mode because of an oversight by the last operator which left the agbot with no brake control.  Brake control was returned by simply attaching the brake controller.  The third is a glitch causing no signal in the right forward proximity sensor.  The glitch turns out to be a simple loose terminal screw which is tightened.  A fourth is a patch of mud on the rear camera, which is promptly cleaned. With the checklist cleared the farmer sends the agbot on its way to complete its mission which is set to run till late evening.


Before the evening is out, the farmer gets a text message that the proximity sensor on his agbot stopped it at the edge of the road.  Going down the road the farmer finds a person with a camera poking around the agbot.  The agbot stands silently by as the camera person explains his reason for stopping.  Though the accent of this person sounds strange, the farmer has a cordial conversation and sends the person on his way.   Upon review of the footage of the rear camera, the farmer realizes the person’s car had an out of state tag and a pro-dairy “got milk” bumper sticker.  Knowing the person was simply a tourist interested in seeing an agbot, the agbot gets the “all-okay” signal to complete its mission.


As the sun sets, the agbot moves to its stop point and shuts down.  The farmer knew the day went by without incident. With peace of mind the farmer rested well.

-Jerry M.

Shop Kitty Teaches Third Graders Engineering

The shop kitty got a chuckle from four different classes of third graders as well as got the third graders to thinking.  Third graders in South Carolina are introduced to engineering by learning how to define an engineering problem, then thinking of ways to solve the problem.

               Engineering Problem?

Fire Extinguisher Selected

The fire extinguisher selected for the Cricket is a Purple K extinguisher.  The purple K extinguisher is a dry-chemical fire suppressor, mostly potassium bicarbonate, effective against class B, or fuel fires.   It is partially effective against C fires, or electrical fires.

Any farm operation storing a large quantity of fuel would do well to keep one of these handy. Robby, who has experience working for a fire extinguisher company, is the team member who selected the extinguisher.   (The cat helped)