Grain weevil robot

Technology keeps farmers out of grain bins.

Zach Hunnicutt doesn’t like going inside a dirty, hot grain bin, but he does – and quite often. At minimum, the Nebraska farmer enters 11 grain bins five times a year to manage stored grain.

“That’s at least 55 times a year our friend runs the risk of not coming out alive,” says Ben Johnson, an electrical engineering student at the University of Nebraska.

Hunnicutt isn’t alone. Every year thousands of farmers and commercial grain handlers risk their lives by entering a grain bin to remove clumped or rotted grain. It takes about five seconds to become trapped in grain. After 22 seconds, a completely covered person has little hope of survival.

“Every time they breath in and breath out, that grain is going to get tighter, which means the next breath won’t be as deep,” says Dan Neenan, director, National Education Center for Agricultural Safety. 

From 2010 to 2019, 330 grain entrapments were reported in the United States, according to the 2019 Summary of U.S. Agricultural Confined Space Related Injuries and Fatalities. While the numbers have gone down year over year, a recent uptick in documented cases is concerning. In 2019, there were 38 grain entrapments, an increase of eight from the previous year; 23 were fatal.

“Grain has to be managed throughout the entire storage process, and a farmer with a shovel has always been the best solution,” Johnson says. 

Hunnicutt admits he is tired of scooping grain in a dangerous place. “I had a great-uncle die in a grain bin accident when I was young, so it has touched my family directly. My wife makes me check in every time I enter or exit a bin,” he says, adding his total storage capacity is about 500,000 bushels.

Send in the robot

Aware that Johnson had a background in robotics, Hunnicutt asked the engineer to develop a product that would keep him out of the bin for good. The result is Grain Weevil – a robot that uses auger-based propulsion to move across the top of grain to address several safety issues including breaking up crusts, leveling bins, doing inspections, and helping with extractions so sweep augers work more efficiently. 

“Basically, it reduces the viscosity of the grain, which allows gravity to do the rest of the work,” explains Johnson, chief innovation officer of JLI Robotics, a company he founded with his father, Chad Johnson.

Driven by a handheld remote, with plans to eventually run it autonomously, Grain Weevil can operate on one battery charge for about two hours. The company is also designing its robot to be linked in either a swarm of Grain Weevils or by attaching them to create one large robot for bigger tasks.

Grain Weevil weighs 26 pounds and comes in a backpack for safe carrying to the top of the bin. Other features include a swappable payload bay, expandable battery packs, a video stream, and a basic sensor package. 

By spring, JLI Robotics’ goal is to have a fully functional prototype, so it can begin on-farm trials and pilot projects. In early summer, it may also offer the robot as a service. The company is looking for farmers interested in providing feedback on Grain Weevil. Email Chad Johnson at chad@jlirobotics.com or visit grainweevil.com to learn more. 

“We have created a robot that will fundamentally change how grain bins are managed,” Johnson says. “In the next five to seven years, we believe nearly every farmer will adopt some sort of grain bin robot.”

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