‘This could be the future of Eastern Kentucky’: Pike County sophomores grow AgTech with AhBen

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Published: Dec. 21, 2021 at 7:19 PM EST
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BELFRY, Ky. (WYMT) - Belfry High School sophomores Jonah Adkins and Brendan Hackney have been working to make a mark on the high tech agriculture, branching off on the same vine as projects like AppHarvest and AppleAtcha, with a new business model devoted to revolutionizing automated vertical farming.

AhBen, a robot created to monitor growth, color, and water needs of plants, was built from a Vex Robotics test bed as part of the school’s Project Lead the Way program.

The robot moves over plants, measuring and imaging them before sending their health information to a computer. According to the team, the robot is an extra set of hands in a job with few workers and limited space, and is basically self-sufficient with its wireless capabilities.

“Time is always a valuable asset. So, we want to be able to use this robot in nurseries,” said Adkins. “To be able to just go through in seconds and be able to measure the height and color and just water the plants and be able to report it all back to a computer. So, it doesn’t waste a lot of time and workers and land.”

The project also seeks to cut down CO2 emissions, and will eventually include watering capabilities to keep plants healthy and bring Appalachian agriculture into the new era.

“With our coal industry gone in Eastern Kentucky, we don’t really have an industry right now. So we could bring an industry here,” said Hackney. “That’s kind of our goal is to kind of raise and nurture the beginning of a new industry in Eastern Kentucky.”

That idea, seeking to solve problems for greenhouse farming with innovation and creativity, was the perfect fit for the Invest 606, Do Good Brands STARTER LABS Pitch Competition. (A new program aimed at spreading the entrepreneur bug around the region.)

So, Belfry teacher Dr. Haridas Chandran told the guys about the program and they worked to send in a video showcasing their robot.

The duo said many teachers helped out, between proofing the pitch script and editing the video, helping them submit their project just before the deadline. Which paid off, since the team took the first place prize in the competition.

“It’s been pretty crazy, really, to watch it come from just an idea in our heads to now a physical product,” said Adkins. “And hopefully, eventually, mass-produced maybe, and even the standard in the field of automated vertical farming.”

They said the win goes a long way in showing them their work has the potential to produce change.

“It gave us a big boost of confidence. We thought we had a good idea and just seeing other people like it too kind of gave us a lot of encouragement to keep it going and really trying to get it up to the next level,” said Hackney. “We think this could be the future of Eastern Kentucky.”

The guys said the competition gave them a platform to share their ideas with likeminded people, something that is just as rewarding as the $1,000 prize.

“It kind of shows there’s other people like you, with ideas that they think could really change the economy,” said Hackney. “The talent in Eastern Kentucky is very high, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention, just because they think we’re mountain people, I guess. But, I mean, if you really put the top minds all together, it really shows you like how talented we are.”

That connection and bridge-building is what organizers say the competition was all about, bringing everyone to the same stage to see that their ideas matter and they can create networks.

“As an entrepreneur myself, it’s really inspiring to see young entrepreneurs come up with innovating ideas like this. They are our future,” said Do Good Brands Owner Ryan Jones.

Jones congratulated the Belfry students and recognized the other teams who submitted projects, including those who placed. Rowan County Senior High School took second with a project called “Swiftly Safe” and Lawrence County High School bagged third with “The Local Choice.” Six counties were represented, with 10 total projects to choose from. Laurel, Bell, and Breathitt Counties also submitted pitches.

Jones said the projects submitted show a clear Appalachian advancement mindset in the current generation of high schoolers. He said he doesn’t need a robot to tell him the region is ripe with talent- talent that would be a great fit for the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs, which is one of the major connections the new pitch competition hopes to establish for inquiring minds.

“I think we can see from this competition that our future is very bright,” Jones said.

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