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Rose-Hulman Ventures Creates Innovative Tool to Verify Corn Planting Accuracy

Monday, August 26, 2013
Female stands in garden holding a device
In The Test Field: Mechanical engineering student Allison Crump tests the cornstalk measuring tool this summer in a test corn field plot on Rose-Hulman's South Campus. She has been an intern during most of the project's life cycle. (Photo by Dale Long)

Rose-Hulman Ventures is assisting the Precision Planting company to live up to its name. Project managers and student interns have developed an innovative agricultural data collection tool to produce the best possible yields for American farmers.

Agronomists and research staff members are using the device to evaluate the accuracy of the seed-planting process by measuring the distance between freshly sprouted cornstalks in fields.

Spacing is crucial to determine if plants receive the water, nutrient content, and sunlight necessary to grow to full maturity each growing season. Corn reacts to high density planting, changing plant size, ear size, and ear placement in order to prepare for competition. So, accurate planting contributes to higher bushel yields and better profits.

For the past two summers, this important data has been collected by the handmade stick-like device that features a 100-foot measuring instrument (measuring the distance between cornstalks in each row), a capture button (documenting the number of stalks in each row), and an iPad platform (entering data). It is adjustable to meet each user's physical stature, is lightweight, portable, and can be easily used by one person.

Previously, collecting such planting data was a painstaking process during the long, hot summer days in cornfields across North America. Teams of two or more persons took measurements by hand with rulers, recorded the distances on notepads, and then others typed the data into a computer for analysis.

"This device provides instantaneous data while in the field," notes Derek Sauder, Precision Planting's lead researcher. "It saves us from doing clerical work, and gives us instant feedback so we can investigate further while in the field."

Precision Planting came to Rose-Hulman Ventures with the product idea in early 2012, and three devices were developed from modified parts by that spring to measure approximately 300,000 cornstalks for research and development. The devices became so popular that 22 units were deployed this summer to collect more than 1 million data points from fields across Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Illinois, and Iowa. Staff members affectionately call the device "pogo stick" because of its design and appearance.

"The 'pogo stick' has accomplished the goal of being an innovative data collection tool," says Sauder. "We have been able to develop better products, more quickly, with better data since the 'pogo stick' has made data easy to obtain."

Student sits in chair holding pogo stick
Preparing Devices For Corn Fields: John Lobdell, a 2013 computer engineering graduate, puts the finishing touches on one of three cornstalk measuring tool devices created by Rose-Hulman Ventures for the Precision Planting company to use during the 2013 growing season. (Photo by Shawn Spence)

Coming up with the original design concepts were Rose-Hulman Ventures Project Managers Zhan Chen, Barry Davignon, and Sandor Pethes. Nine student interns have worked on the project during the past 18 months.

"This is a great example of a project that brought in expertise across a variety of engineering disciplines within Rose-Hulman Ventures-hardware, firmware, and software development," says Pethes, a 2002 Rose-Hulman computer science graduate. "It has been a great learning process since most of the people involved had very little farming knowledge."

Allison Crump, a junior mechanical engineering major, used her interest in robotics and computer science to develop several of the device's iPad data collection features. She also has coordinated efforts between different engineering groups during assembly, testing, and shipping, and was a liaison with Precision Planting staff.

"It has been interesting to see how my career interests contribute with mechanical and electrical systems to create a product that meets a customer's needs," states Crump.

Helping develop the device's firmware data collection system was John Lobdell, a 2013 computer engineering graduate who assembled and tested many of the devices. "It has been interesting following this product from start to finish, knowing that I contributed to something that is helping others," he says. "Everything fit together in one nice package."

Meanwhile, sophomore mechanical engineering student Gary Newell used his knowledge as the son of an Illinois farmer to plant a test farm plot on Rose-Hulman's South Campus.

"Since we use Precision Planting devices on our family farm, I knew how important it was for the company and the farmers that we got the devices in the fields this spring," remarks Newell.

Cory Muhlbauer, Precision Planting's research agronomist, adds, "Barry and Sandor, along with the students working on the project, made a handful of visits to test the 'pogo stick' with us in the field. As a team, they were quick to respond to issues, even the urgent cases when an issue was discovered in the field."

The cornstalk measuring device has been another successful collaborative project for Rose-Hulman Ventures, satisfying a client while providing real-world educational experiences for students.

"We turned to Rose-Hulman Ventures for the 'pogo stick' project because we didn't have the manpower in house to accomplish it," says Sauder. "In its current state, the 'pogo stick' has accomplished our original goals, and with a little more work, I'm confident it will exceed our expectations."