Herman man’s robot wins ag innovation contest

Scott Niewohner, right, and his son Lucas, are developing a robot in their shop west of Herman. The unit is being designed to clear dead birds from chicken barns.

“Just give me five minutes ...”

That’s all a good pitch man needs to make a sale.

A Herman man got five minutes recently, in front of a crowd of over 100 farmers and ag industry representatives for a chance to pitch an idea for an innovative product.

The five minutes paid off big time for Herman man Scott Niewohner and his partner Tim Frederick who won a pitch contest at the Nebraska Power Farming Show in Lincoln Dec. 11 for their company—Dynamic Motion.

The competition allowed five pre-chosen ag tech start-ups pitching their ideas to help farmers and ranchers manage their operations more effectively. The selected start-ups take the stage and got five minutes to pitch their innovative products, services and/or process direct to the farmers and ranchers who can benefit from them.

The competition, emceed by KTIC radio’s farm director, Chad Moyer, culminated with one company earning the $5,000 People’s Choice award and the winning company receiving a $20,000 grand prize.

The Ag Tech Innovation Competition is presented by Farm Credit Services in collaboration with the Iowa-Nebraska Equipment Dealers Association, Lindsay Corporation, Nationwide Insurance, Nebraska Corn Board, Invest Nebraska and The Combine.

Dynamic Motion became the first company to ever win the $20,000 grand prize put up by Farm Credit Services and the $5,000 People’s Choice, sponsored by Lindsay Mfg. among others.

Niewohner said his was the only Nebraska-based company in the contest. “Which didn’t hurt with People’s Choice.”

But it was the idea that swayed the judges.

Dynamic Motion is a robotics company that has developed a unit to pick up dead birds in poultry barns and also till the bedding.

Niewohner and his son, Lucas, a junior at Tekamah-Herman High School, were working on it in the shop on the farm west of Herman on Christmas Eve when a reporter visited the place.

Niewohner called it a simple concept that solves labor, bird and human health concerns.

With a number of poultry barns within a few miles of his rural Washington County home, Niewohner has had the help of neighbors when it came to initial testing.

Right now, they’re working on what they call Version 1. “This is just to see if it works and if a customer will pay for it,” he said. “There is a lot to do to make it fully marketable.”

The robot, built from an off-the-shelf chassis, is about the size of a wheelchair but has a track propulsion system and has a rake-like mechanism in front that scoops up the carcass while leaving the bedding behind. It then dumps its payload into a tray and moves on to the next target.

The robot s outfitted with several cameras. Niewohner said Frederick wrote most of the computer code that operates the robot’s visuals. But when the language needs altered a bit the younger Niewohner can jump in and make the necessary changes.

The remote view allows an operator to steer the unit and send it commands, all while using a controller like you’d see on a common video game.

But it’s no game. With the rise of almost industrial level poultry production, Niewohner sees an opportunity to sell robots nationwide.

With a background in construction, Niewohner said he’s used to seeing a problem a devising a solution. He was introduced to robots through nearly a decade of coaching his son’s robotics club.

The two worlds collided thanks to an idea that came from a cousin. When talks of a Costco plant coming to Fremont first started, Niewohner said the cousin was interested in raising chickens, but he didn’t want to deal with the dead birds. “I thought there had to be a lot of people like that.”

So he started researching.

Niewohner said a typical 50,000 head chicken operation will lose three to five percent of its population between the time the birds are placed and when they’re processed.

That’s 1,500 birds.

“Even for people who are raised around livestock, that amount of loss can be devastating emotionally,” he said. “Plus, it’s a lot of work.”

Niewohner said the robot is really the first step what could develop into in a chain that mechanizes the entire loss disposal process.

He said his research also showed bedding to a be a key component in animal health.

“If you let it sit, it sort of crusts over and disease can get trapped underneath, he said. “If you can keep the bedding turned, it really helps preserve animal health.”

They came up with a solution for that, too. A row of small farm discs, each about four inches across, are attached to the lower rear of the robot and are used to till the bedding in the barns.

Niewohner thinks current model is probably too big for a chicken barn. He’d like to get it down to two feet by three feet and weighing about 200 pounds. But he also is looking to make a bigger model to service turkey barns, where more weight and horsepower would be an absolute necessity.

The robot also has a twin that power washes hog confinements.

That concept has been shelved for the short term while the chicken barn robot takes over.

He called the poultry idea “low-hanging fruit,” an idea that will pay off faster than the hog barn washer.

The big difference between the two is testing time. Although all bioscience requirements have to be followed for each one, the opportunities to test in a chicken barn are more frequent than a hog barn.

“One failure shuts down a test,” he said. “Then you have to come up with a fix and test again. It could be several months before you could get into a hog barn again.”

Among the other benefits of poultry, chicken barns are largely identical no matter where they are while the interiors of hog barns are often adapted by the individual producer.

The FCS money comes with no strings. Niewohner said he’s using part of it to pay Lucas for his help with the programming. “It’s probably 10 cents on the dollar for what you’d have to pay somebody with a degree.”

For now, the robot is about where they want it in terms of technology and how its used. Niewohner said they won’t refine it much more until they get some buy-in. He’s looking for about a dozen area chicken producers to pay to have a prototype in operation on their farm. If it works and they like it, the initial cost will be applied to the purchase.

It’s a humble start for what could become a nationwide brand.

Pretty good use of five minutes.

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