‘Sludge boat’ lets farmers stay off manure lagoons

By Emily Sokolik

At the South Farms, the livestock research facility on South First Street in Champaign, manure lagoons are set up to store animal waste. Matt Robert, visiting research engineer with the University department of agricultural and biological engineering, said the waste eventually develops into fertilizer but can only be applied at certain times of the year.

The manure lagoons serve as storage sites until the fertilizer can be used. Over time, the waste, stored in liquid form, builds up sludge beneath the surface, decreasing the amount of area available to treat the waste. The sludge also makes the odor in the lagoon considerably worse.

For a long time, the problem plaguing farmers has been knowing where and how large the sludge build up is so it can be removed effectively. Now, researchers at the University, using a design originally proposed by Mark Rice at North Carolina State University, devised their own method for eliminating much of the guesswork.

Robert and Andy Lenkaitis, graduate student, have teamed up to construct a small, remote control-operated boat that glides, with the help of propellers, across the surface of a manure lagoon. The “heart and soul” of the boat, Lenkaitis said, is a commercially available fish finder with Global Positioning System. The GPS component is able to detect the sludge and its location through sonar readings, which are recorded on a memory card and installed onto a computer.

Farmers with lagoons constructed in the 1970s and 1980s are now trying to discern if their waste storages need to be cleaned out. In the past, the only way to locate and measure sludge buildup was to take a paddleboat into the lagoon and use a long pole to detect the amount of sludge lurking below. This process is tedious, and even carries a risk of drowning.

“Basically, this boat means I don’t have to go out into the lagoon,” Robert said. “Now I can just sit on the shore and watch.”

Rice, an animal waste specialist, explained the difference between his boat and the one created at the University.

“My design had a propeller in the water like a standard boat, but this causes problems in ponds with floating debris,” Rice said. “(Robert and Lenkaitis) used an airboat design like in the Everglades, which uses air pressure to propel itself.”

Robert, Lenkaitisa and Rice have no plans to patent the boat. Robert points to the issue of money as a viable reason.

“I don’t care to make money off of it, and a patent costs about $10,000, so unless you plan to charge people for it, you will lose money,” Robert said.

Instead, the designs are shared with any farmer who takes an interest in building their own version of the boat. Robert said all the parts can be purchased from a local hobby shop with the cost of construction totaling $1,800.

Rice’s version of the boat has been a success.

“It’s gone over well, and I know two or three producers who are in the process of building their own,” Rice said. “It really takes at least two people to do a survey normally and about an hour to do it, and you take this remote-controlled boat and in about 20 minutes it does a better job than any person could do.”

Robert and Lenkaitis began the project this past spring, and started testing the boat throughout the summer. Constant improvements are being made, and both Robert and Lenkaitis said they feel there will be more refinements to come.

“We are about three quarters of the way there,” Lenkaitis said.