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Finding a problematic wire section with an autonomous robot

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Time and time again, corn farmers report that installing tile drainage on their farm provides a higher return on investment than any other practice.

While this may be true, the return on investment is only improved if the tile drainage system is working. Clogged pipes due to roots, rodents or other vile obstructions are not profitable and can cause crop failure and loss of man-hours associated with insulation.

This is where The Ferret comes in. The Ferret is a wireless robot that can inspect tile drainage and find clogs, providing an “unobtrusive, non-invasive way to proactively inspect tile,” says Austin Ehle, director of Davaus, the Hoagland, Indiana-based company that designs and manufactures the product.

Ehle says that overhead scans are a great way to discover evidence of potentially clogged tiles. “You might see a depression in the field, or the beginnings of a pothole or suction hole. In extreme cases, you might see broken tiles.”

Think of Ferret as a “drone built into the ground,” adds Dave Hockemeyer, president of Davaus.

The heart of Ferret is a crawler rover with cameras and its own LED light source that fits into a 4-inch tile and “crawls” along the tile at speeds of 4 to 5 mph. The rover’s movements are controlled by a wireless handheld display with a 7-inch screen and joystick controls. The controller emits a radio signal that tells the Ferret rover what to do. Operators must be within a 50-foot radius between the rover and the controller. “You can walk it or follow it with an ATV,” Ehle says.

The wireless capability is unique in the industry. “There are some similar products on the market, but they are wired. That makes them heavy and bulky,” Ehle explains. “Imagine a 400 or 500-foot cable with a camera on the end. Just winding that up and putting it in the back of the truck is not easy.”

The Ferret rover has a battery life of at least 60 minutes per battery. Hockemeyer says that’s important to allow the unit to explore drainage piping, connections and inlets.”

“We built this not so much for the distance as for the run time,” he explains. “Some of our farmers knew exactly where their pipe was, so it gives them plenty of time to survey the area.”

Using a pipe probe or even an excavator to find and identify the problem is time-consuming and haphazard. The Ferret quickly locates the point of failure, helps identify the problem and allows producers to easily fix the problem.

“It’s an eye underground so you can see where there might be problems. Knowing where the problem is is half the battle,” adds Hockemeyer.

The Ferret kit includes the rotor, controller, two batteries and a durable case. The kit retails for $1,995. A limited launch is planned for July 2020. The full launch, sold directly by Davaus, will take place in early 2021.