Agriculture Robot
Agriculture Robot

Robotics and Farming Should Go Together

Robotics and farming are rarely mentioned in the same breath, but for Melvin Matulac, vice president of research at Genetic Computer Institute, the combination of both is precisely the direction the country’s agricultural sector must explore.

And with his newest brainchild—a nationwide robotics competition aimed at getting students in the high school and college levels to design robots applicable in agriculture—the Philippines might just be a step closer to realizing this possibility.

“Agriculture is one of the most important sectors. I believe [the competition] will spark investment in agriculture as well as the electronics sector,” said Matulac, who also cofounded the Pinoy Robot Games Foundation, which supports robotics development in the country.

He said Japan and Australia already use robotics in their farming industry to increase the quantity and quality of output.While still in it’s infancy—the contest’s framework is still to be finalized in late February—Matulac has already made some efforts in contacting possible partner-schools.

Agriculture Robot Engineers
Agriculture Robot Engineers

THE winners in the IT Olympiad and Robotics Fire Fighting Contest held recently at the University of the Philippines Diliman are (third to fifth from left) Joseph Mill Seraspe, Evan Canua and Jerson Gapuz of Nuestra Señora de Aranzazu Parochial School. Top is one of the entries in the competition.

He is targeting the participation of 80 percent of about 81 provinces in the country, but added that even a lower target of 50 percent will be sufficient. He has since talked to officials of Pangasinan State University, Nueva Vizcaya State University, Isabella State University, apart from Genetic’s partner-schools in Metro Manila.

Next up, he added, are the Northern Luzon provinces, institutions in Cebu and, “definitely,” Mindanao, starting with universities in Davao City.

The robotics advocate is currently eyeing either Western Visayas State University in Iloilo City and Central Luzon State University in Nueva Ecija to spearhead the project.

He said Iloilo is the major agriculture hub in the country, while “Central Luzon State University is into mechanized farming, and the dean there is very interested in robots in agriculture.”

He added: “These universities talk to each other, they do meet…. And they are very much interested. I always got positive feedback [from them].”

Farming for the best ideas

Matulac said he is focusing on students as he has faith in the younger generation’s creativity and passion.

“I want to see the ideas of young people. And these ideas will also have a long-lasting effect. If students see the possibility of their contribution, they will stick with it, and go through with agriculture [after they graduate],” he said.

He shared that he initially got the idea for this competition from the recent International Robotics Olympiad, an annual international robotics competition where students from schools all over the world participate. The latest was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in December which he attended to support the Philippine team.

“In Malaysia, they asked students to design robots to solve the problem of traffic. From this, I thought ‘why not robots for agriculture [back home]?’” he said.

Matulac intends to divide the contest into two parts. The first part will involve the students stating their concept and process, and submit this to the judges. The second, and potentially more challenging aspect, will be to build a miniature prototype of the idea.

He said there will be several categories that encompass all aspects of farming from applications in livestock, fishery and produce farming.

He noted, for instance, possible applications in postharvesting, such as robots helping farmers to bag and transport their produce. He also looked forward to concepts addressing the planting process itself where “a robot can be planting.”

The contest, he estimates, should be launched by March and will run until December this year.

Government funding with private-sector follow through

Matulac said the government and private sectors would play their respective roles, as well. For the competition itself, he will seek aid from local government units to provide basic grants for the schools intending to join the competition.

This will include between P10,000 and P20,000 in grants per team or school to purchase robotic components for the miniature prototype.

The amount, while small for Metro Manila standards, may be too costly for small provincial schools but Matulac said this does not worry him.

“I have to be frank, [but this is] not a problem…not during an election year,” he said. Eventually, he sees the private sector supporting the eventual winners of the competition: an important criteria will be commercial viability.

“The aim is to have actual application… invite owners of milling companies, owners of those businesses that really would [benefit from this]. I see no difficulty to get them aboard,” he said, adding many have expressed interest already.

Robots replacing workers

Some quarters may point out—particularly in this period of slowing economic growth and higher unemployment—that robots will only take jobs away from farmers, but Matulac said this is a false argument.

Instead, he sees no conflict and added that he sees farmers improving in terms of skills competency, and that overall, this may boost scientific learning in the country.

“When you speak about intelligent farming, you need to support it with good programs, to make your farmers educated and learned,” he said. “These techniques can be used to optimize their products [such as] how to put [more] value to produce.”

Additionally, farmers will become technologically competent, to operate this equipment. Such move, he said, may open up new industries in the technology sector. “Farmers will become less of farmers and more of entrepreneurs,” he said.

Results by 2010?

Matulac mentioned that there will be tangible results—at least on the conceptual prototype level—by 2010. He noted that such a goal was very possible given the talent of the Filipino youth.

During last month’s Genetic Institute’s Second IT Olympiad and Robotics Fire Fighting Contest, where Matulac spoke with the BusinessMirror, this talent was clearly evident.

The event intended to showcase the robots—built and programmed by students—and their ability to navigate their way around a maze. The goal: to find a lit candle and extinguish the flame. The exercise was meant to simulate the robots’ effectiveness in an actual house fire.

And on the stage of the University of the Philippines College of Engineering auditorium stood the arena: a raised surface with cardboard walls erected around and within the squarish space, creating a simple maze.

Robots start at the opposite end and navigate their way to the fire.

During the trail session, students showed many surprising solutions. The robot from Grace Christian High School sported a wet sponge attached to what amounted to forward appendages—the robotic equivalent of outstretched arms.

Another machine, from Hope Academy, had a small fan attached in its front end. As explained by the team of three students—all of which couldn’t have been more than 13 years old—the robot can navigate with light-sensitive sensors, which also trigger the fan.