In this episode, Ron Vanderkley speaks with Professor Peter Corke from Queensland University of Technology, about the fast-tracking research that will see robots planting, weeding, maintaining and harvesting crops. The AgBot is a light-weight, golf buggy-sized robot that has been specifically designed to reduce the environmental impact of weeding.
Keystone Technology’s LED vegetable garden system is a cultivation system for indoor plant factories that uses LED lighting instead of sunlight. The most defining feature of the system on display at the company’s showroom in Yokohama is its 3-dimensional use of space. “This is a 5-tiered cultivation system. For smaller heads of lettuce, you can harvest about 1,500 heads in one month. If this were to be fit into a container of about 20 feet (6m), it would be equivalent to 970 sq. meters. Thus with 16 sq. meters, you could produce an amount that is on par with 970 sq. meters.”
Harvest Automation, a Massachusetts-based start-up, has begun shipping their robots. After five years and an A, B and C round of equity funding, plus some debt, totalling almost $25 million, their HV-100 mobile robots are finally coming to market.
Over the last few years, there has been increasing talk about the potential of agriculture as a market for robotics. Speaking about future markets for unmanned aerial systems in a recent presentation at Maker Faire, DIY Drones founder and CEO of 3D Robotics Chris Anderson characterized agriculture as the “biggest economic potential with the lowest regulatory barriers,” and talked about the important role they can play in supplying much needed data to farmers, stating that “agriculture is a big data problem without the big data.”
As guest speaker for a CMURobotics RI Seminar, titled Lessons Learned Bootstrapping a Robotic Vehicle Company, Mel Torrie of Autonomous Solutions (Petersboro, Utah), describes how he got into robotics in the first place, why he made the jump from academia to a startup, how that startup survived their “near-death experience”, what the company has been doing since, and what he’s learned along the way. There is a strong agricultural theme, both in his original motivation and in the history and current operation of Autonomous Solutions.
Mel Torrie was recently interviewed by Robots Podcast
Together with Professor Maurice Maloney, Director of Rothamsted Research, David Gardner, CEO of The Royal Agricultural Society of England, speaking with Charlotte Smith of the BBC R4′s Farming Today, for the January 5th edition of Farming Today This Week, covering the 2013 Oxford Farming Conference (held Jan. 2nd-4th on the campus of Oxford University), had this to say on the morning of the last day of the conference:
I think engineering has a huge amount to offer. We’ve seen a huge growth in the last decade or so in terms of precision farming on arable farms, so the whole concept of measuring in detail what we are doing on an individual field basis, and indeed within parts of fields, that gives us the opportunity firstly to reduce inputs, so for example we can identify which parts of the field need particular fertilizer, and just applying them to that part of the field. We can identify which parts of the field need particular weed killers and apply them just to that part of the field, rather than applying them to the field as a whole. And today I’m going to talk, and it will be quite controversial at the conference, I think, but I’m going to talk about relatively small, light-weight gantries that are autonomous, that don’t have a driver on them.
On using robots to make gardening scalable to millions of acres…
You might wonder why I want to turn land management over to robots. Is it because I’m such a geek that I think everything goes better with robots? No, not really. Sure, I think the technology is cool, but I’m not eager to factor human beings altogether out of any activity, not even those that are dull, dirty, and/or dangerous.
I am, however, eager to see the benefits of replacing methods designed to spread a human operator’s time as thinly as possible with methods which reintroduce attention to detail to plant cultivation. Granted, that attention would, for the most part, be provided by robotic sensors, processors, and algorithms, but that has an upside as well as a downside.
Writing in issue 2888 of New Scientist, James Mitchell Crow introduces us to the notion that robots will, sooner or later, be tending the crops we depend upon for food, and takes us on a whirlwind world tour of some of the people working to bring this about and some of the technologies that have already been developed.
He begins with Simon Blackmore, of Harper Adams University College, who tells us about robotic technologies that have already found their way into new tractors, implements, and combine harvesters. Blackmore also discusses the energetics of cultivation, saying “Why do we plough? Mainly to repair the damage that we have caused with big tractors. Up to 80 per cent of the energy going into cultivation is there to repair this damage.” He proposes an altogether different approach, using light-weight, autonomous machines. Crow summarizes the requirements list for these machines thusly: “These agribots need to have three key abilities: to navigate, to interpret the scene in front of them, and to be able to help the farmer, by blasting a weed, applying a chemical or harvesting the crop.”
This will be the 10th edition of the Field Robot Event. Organized by Fontys University of Applied Sciences and Wageningen UR (University & Research), it will be held in Venlo, The Netherlands, on the grounds of Floriade 2012.
(PDF of slides from above presentation video about the 2012 Field Robot Event)