By TIM ALEXANDER
AURORA, Neb. — After a plea from a farming friend, a three-person team of entrepreneurs has developed a robotic machine that can greatly reduce grain lodging in silos, a dangerous condition that can require farmers or elevator workers to climb into grain storage bins to manually dislodge clumps of grain that interfere with augers.
It’s a situation that most farmers who store grain on-farm have likely had to deal with, putting themselves, their families and employees in danger. The “Grain Weevil” (www.GrainWeevil.com), developed at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (UNO), seeks to eliminate the danger. Currently being readied for testing on a number of farms, the Grain Weevil awaits final regulatory approval before reaching the marketplace.
According to Grain Weevil CEO Chad Johnson, the robot does the work that no human should.
“The Grain Weevil breaks up crusted grain so you don’t have to go in there with a shovel or a pole,” said Johnson, a robotics instructor at UNO who supervised the construction of the Grain Weevil prototype by his son, Ben, and college roommate, Zane Zents. “We realized pretty quickly that it can also level grain bins and move grain. It can actually manage grain bins from the first load you put in. It can act as a layer-to-layer spreader, it can increase airflow uniformity and it can 3-D map-and-measure so you can gauge temperature moisture volumes.
“It can also do inspections and can help with the extraction process as well. It is designed to do everything you need to do in a grain bin, which helps achieve our mission of ‘no boots in the grain.’”
The Grain Weevil is introduced to a grain bin through the hatch door via a wench docking system. It is lowered onto the top of the grain by a tether and allowed to run untethered until its tasks are complete. The robot is then returned to its charging dock to await its next use.
“We’ve made the robot so it can be moved from grain bin to grain bin to make it more affordable. During harvest one robot can manage about 250,000 bushels, so that’s about five grain bins. In larger grain bins two robots can work together efficiently. It takes about the same amount of time for the robot to level a grain bin as it does for a human,” said Johnson.
Though the Grain Weevil has yet to reach the marketplace, the product has already garnered a number of recognition awards, corporate sponsors and development grants. These include a National Science Foundation research grant, a Nebraska Innovation Fund prototyping grant and an American Farm Bureau Federation Ag Innovation award.
Though it’s impossible to speculate when the Grain Weevil might receive final regulatory approval for production and marketing, Johnson hopes the first robots will be on the market by 2025.
“It all depends on how fast the safety certifications are in place. We’ll be the first mobile robot that has the dust explosion certification required to go into grain bins. We’re using UL (Underwriter’s Laboratory) to verify our safety certification and it’s been a long process getting to where we are. They’re now doing what’s known as a pre-engineering review, and we’re hoping that by the end of the fall we’ll be certified,” said Johnson.
Johnson and the Grain Weevil crew, which has expanded to seven workers, hope to spend the majority of 2024 readying the robot for a 2025 commercial release. They plan to start rolling out a limited number of robots to select farms next year to work out any final operational kinks in their design.
“We have to ensure that we are ignition-free and dustproof. It must be sealed tight so no dust can get into the electronics. It cannot extend over a certain temperature threshold. There are all sorts of things that have to be thought through to be able to bring this product to commercial facilities that adhere to OSHA and fire regulations,” Johnson explained, adding that the robot weighs around 50 pounds and operates at around five horsepower.
Farmers who have heard about the Grain Weevil or visited the product website are enthusiastic about the robot coming on the market, according to Johnson.
“They’re most excited because they won’t have to level (grain) anymore,” he said. “I think there is a lot of interest and excitement, and I wish we could snap our fingers and be done with the regulatory process.”
As it looks now the cost of the Grain Weevil should end up being around $2,000 per grain bin, the company’s CEO disclosed. “We’re not settled on a price yet due to the safety certifications and the unknowns that are left, but we are working hard to ensure that farmers will make more money (from the presence of the Grain Weevil) than they will spend,” Johnson said.