Engineering grads are champs again at hi-tech agriculture competition

By Costa Maragos Posted: June 30, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Members of the Regina's Prairie Robotics team. (l-r) Joshua Friedrick, Sam Dietrich, Caleb Friedrick and Dean Kertai.
Members of the Regina's Prairie Robotics team. (l-r) Joshua Friedrick, Sam Dietrich, Caleb Friedrick and Dean Kertai. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Friedrick

They’ve done it again.

For the second year in a row, an engineering team with strong University of Regina roots has won at the AgBot Challenge that comes with a prize of $25,000 (USD).

The competition is about encouraging robotics in agriculture, held at Gerrish Farms near Rockville, Indiana. The event attracted top-notch teams from North America, June 23 – 25, 2017.

The Regina team, Prairie Robotics, is made up of three recent graduates of the U of R’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science. They are Caleb Friedrick (’16), Joshua Friedrick (’16) and Sam Dietrich (’17).

The other member of the team is Dean Kertai, a graduate of the Civil Technologist program at Saskatchewan Polytechnic.

“We all felt really good about how our robot performed at the competition,” says Dietrich. “We had tested it extensively on a farm near Pense and have previously seen it perform but it felt good to show the judges and spectators what we’d spent months developing."

The competition expanded this year to two categories. The Prairie Robotics team finished first in the Weed and Feed category ahead of Purdue University.

“The competition this year was tough in the sense that competitor participation jumped 400 per cent,” says Dietrich. “Last year there were four AgBots demoed in one challenge – seeding. This year there were two challenges, seeding on Saturday and spraying on Sunday. Additionally, there were 17 AgBots demoed and the variety of solutions presented.”

For the Weed and Feed competition, the teams were required to produce an unmanned, robotic device that could observe crop plants and fertilize them as needed. The machine was also required to be capable of eradicating three common weeds either chemically or mechanically as it moved along the field.

All this while real-time data was being sent back to the base station.

The win builds on the last year’s accomplishment when the foursome won $50,000 (USD) when the competition featured only one category. While preparing for the 2016 competition, the team worked under Dr. Mehran Mehrandezh, associate professor in Industrial System Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science.

“I think our education at the U of R and our success in this competition are linked in that we are able to break down a complex problem and solve it step by step to develop a comprehensive solution,” says Dietrich. “This is in line with the U of R offering all its engineering programs as ‘systems’ programs, meaning that students are taught to understand the big picture first.”

Dietrich’s short-term plan this summer is to take a French immersion class in Quebec for five weeks. Joshua Friedrick and Dean Kurtai work at WSP, an engineering firm. Caleb Friedrick is employed at SeedMaster, a Regina-area agriculture company.

The team received support from Swift Navigation, SeedMaster, Yamaha, Teejet Technologies and Climate Corp.

“We’re considering returning again next year,” says Dietrich. “It’s a little too early to say at this point but we would love to be a three-peat.”

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