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Robots and artificial intelligence bring Nebraska $25 million

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – Imagine the future of farming across the globe. Satellite data, parsed by artificial intelligence speaking to drones, connecting to robots, maintained by a newly trained workforce.

That’s what helped a Nebraska group, Heartland Robotics Cluster, secure a $25 million grant from the American Rescue Plan’s regional Build Back Better program.

”It’s like Main Street, U.S.A., rural communities, coal communities, we’re saying we want you to be able to participate as this economy becomes more digital, more green, more autonomous,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said. “Everybody’s got a shot.”

This stuff is in Nebraska’s wheelhouse.

”We’re extremely excited,” Invest Nebraska C.E.O. Dan Hoffman said. “This has the opportunity to create a long-term labor productivity for the state of Nebraska through automation and robotics.”

The winning pitch is due to the multi-layered group under the Heartland Robotics Cluster.

“We’re doing something different, we’re bringing together all these diverse partners to do things that they’re going to go beyond just what happens on an academic campus,” UNL College of Engineering Associate Dean for Research Mike Riley said. “It’s really working with industry working across the state, it’s helping folks to implement new technologies in their practices.”

According to the EDA’s Build Back Better Regional profile, the group’s plan will “accelerate Nebraska’s leadership in the agricultural industry through robotic technologies and advanced manufacturing automation while also revitalizing the region’s rural labor force and strengthening the nation’s food supply chain.”

”Where better than a place like Nebraska where we’re builders, I mean we build things,” Hoffman said. “It goes from the days of being on the farm to towns with manufacturing and so we understand what the problems are about, we just need to develop the solutions through startups and innovation.”

Those innovations are just part of the plan that includes keeping that new tech working at home.

“A key part of that process is gonna be training the workforce, training the people who are currently in those facilities to, okay you know here’s a new kind of job, new kind of opportunity,” Riley said. “And boy all those opportunities are also really attractive to a lot of youth, to who the idea of working with robots is really cool.”

What may have tilted the scales to the Heartland Robotics Cluster are the three successful projects they’ve already funded, using AI and robotics to solve Ag problems.

“One was to figure out how to put a robot in a grain bin so that farmers don’t die because one farmer dies every two weeks in a grain bin (incident), so it’s a safety issue,” Hoffman said of the Grain Weevil. “That’s a problem, so we have a solution to that.”

“They have a solution through Birds Eye Robotics in a little town called Herman, Nebraska which has a population of 265 people,” he continues. “Why not put in a robot in a poultry barn because they’re having trouble hiring labor, so why not get a robot and teach it artificial intelligence and computer vision, put that in the poultry barn and let that replace the human labor? So we start to see these identifying problems within agriculture and finding robotic and automation solutions to fix them.”

“The third one is Marble Technology which is putting robotic solutions on meat packing plants,” Hoffman said. “All three of the companies went to the American Farm Bureau Innovations Challenge back in January and all three were at the top, Grain Weevil, the robot for gran bins won the challenge and so you know we’re on the right path for Nebraska.”

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