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agricultural robotics

by   -   January 6, 2013

photo of David Gardner

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.

by   -   December 23, 2012

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.

by   -   November 11, 2012

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.”

by   -   June 16, 2012

 

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)

by   -   April 16, 2012

A press release issued by the European Robotics Platform website regarding agricultural robotics as a presence at the European Robotics Forum 2012 makes plain not only that there is a significant level of agricultural robotics activity in Europe but also that it is driven by a vision very similar to that outlined here. Recommended reading!

by   -   January 9, 2012

On a web page describing their current efforts in agricultural robotics, CSIRO ICT Centre describes the focus area this way:

The application of field robotics to agriculture is an emerging area of interest for our researchers. The increasing demands on our agricultural sector are forcing farmers to consider robotic assistance where before they worked alone. In recent years GPS guided tractors have become commercially available and are now seen commonly in many countries in the world. These systems still rely on the farmer to supervise them – normally from tractor’s cab. It is hoped that the next generation of farm robots will be more aware of their immediate surroundings and will be capable of mapping obstacles and navigating autonomously. Unlike field robotics in other domains such as mining or the military (where safety and the removal of people from hazardous situations is a major driver), agricultural robotics will only make sense when the business case means that using robots will save money when compared to farming in a traditional manner.

by   -   December 10, 2011

Historically, at least since the mechanization of agriculture began in earnest, there have been two primary measures of agricultural productivity, the amount that could be grown on a given acreage and the percentage of the population required to feed all of us. The former, measured in bushels or tons per acre, has generally been increasing and the latter, measured in man-hours per bushel or ton, decreasing for at least the last hundred years, albeit more so for some crops than for others. (A consequence of the decreasing need for labor to produce many staples has been the migration of the children of farmers to cities, where they helped keep the cost of labor low in other enterprises.)

 

Corn (maize) is a good example of a crop for which these conventional measures of productivity tell a story of brilliant progress, with the result that corn is cheap enough to use not only as livestock feed, to be converted into meat and dairy products, but as the feedstock for production of ethanol for fuel, competing with fuels refined from petroleum pumped from the ground, rather remarkable considering that corn kernels represent only a small fraction of the biomass of a corn plant and that fermentation and distillation aren’t particularly efficient processes.

 

Crops that fair less well by these measures include many vegetables and most fruits, which have been becoming gradually more expensive, especially as compared with grains that are easily handled mechanically, but even compared with meat and dairy products from grain-fed livestock. One major consequence of this has been that people generally consume more grains, meat, and dairy products, and less fruit and vegetables than they once did, before the mechanization juggernaut got started and while vegetable gardens were still common.

 

So, by an altogether different measure, how healthy the average diet is, mechanization has been a disaster, so far. I say “so far” because the essential problem is that, so far, mechanization has favored crops consisting of hard, dry seeds, that are easily handled in bulk, making other crops needed for a balanced diet relatively less affordable. In happier economic times this would matter less, as people would simply pay the premium for a healthier diet, but the times being what they are people are scrimping however they can, including with the food they consume.

 

There are other ways of measuring productivity: energy use*, soil gain or loss*, water use and contamination*, and the degree to which a given practice denies space to native flora and habitat to native fauna. By any of these measures, conventional mechanization comes out looking at least shortsighted if not dimwitted. *(per unit produced)

 

So is the answer to turn back the clock on agricultural technology, to replace the plow with the hoe and the drill with the planting stick? I’m not prepared to make that argument – although I’ve no doubt others would – aside from noting that gardens are a better use of many urban spaces than are lawns, and there is no further need for rural communities to supply cities with cheap labor, since those cities are already well supplied, and many rural areas suffer from depopulation.

 

Instead, my position is that we need to take mechanization to the next level, replacing dumb machines suited only to bulk operations with smart machines capable of performing well-informed, detailed manipulations, for example controlling weeds by selectively pulling them from the ground or pest caterpillars by picking them from plants (unless they’ve already been parasitized, as by wasps) rather than by applying poisons.

 

Given machinery with an adequate array of sensors and a sufficiently broad range of optional actions, applying best practices becomes a matter of mating these with processing power connected to an expert system, and of programming.

 

It gets better, because the same system that works the land can be used to improve the expert system through experimentation and, in routine operation, by accumulation of data to which statistical methods can be applied, and can also be used to improve the crops themselves, as for instance by leaving the best formed, most insect resistant cabbages to go to seed.

 

The bottom line is that this approach can make available the mechanical equivalent of an attentive expert gardener, at a cost, given predictable economies of scale, that would make possible the wholesale replacement of conventional, traction-based machinery and methods with more adaptable machinery bringing a whole new repertoire of methods to bear, one far better suited to the production of the fruits and vegetables that have been becoming unaffordable under the current regime.

 

As for the other measures of productivity mentioned above, such machinery, since it wouldn’t need to turn soil in bulk and could operate long hours without continuous supervision, would consume energy at a relatively low rate, suitable for supply from solar panels or via the grid from renewable sources. It could operate through continuous ground cover, all but eliminating soil loss, and with minimal use or complete non-use of herbicides and pesticides, reducing soil and water contamination. Ground cover, mulch, and the humus accumulating from decaying roots can also reduce the need for irrigation, and the ability to create local varieties through seed selection based on the health of maturing plants can further reduce it, as well as helping to adapt more quickly to climate change. Making room for native species, something that can only be accomplished in conventional practice by leaving land completely undisturbed, becomes a matter of programming the system to leave certain species alone, wherever it finds them, even to the extent of tolerating some crop loss to native fauna, and to leave anything it can’t identify alone until it can be identified.

 

Such machinery might not be able to compete with conventional practice in the production of corn and other bulk commodities, at least to start with, but it also wouldn’t consume prodigious amounts of petroleum-based fuels. Moreover, development and rapid deployment of such machinery would drive the growth of a new, potentially domestic industry, one that would also work to the benefit of materials recycling efforts, more efficient transportation, and on and on.

 

The R-word I haven’t yet mentioned is robotics. While such machines probably aren’t what most people first think of when robots are mentioned, their creation and production falls squarely within the discipline of robotics, composed as they would necessarily be from robotic technologies.

 

Reposted from Lacy Ice + Heat, via Cultibotics.

by   -   June 12, 2011

At least with regard to agriculture, the effect of robotics upon employment depends on the approach taken. If your goal is to further reduce the number of people deriving an income from farming, and you are willing to accept any other sort of expense to that end (autonomous tractors for instance), then you can probably manage to reduce the percentage of the workforce engaged in agricultural production to an even smaller fraction of 1%.

 

If your goal is to maximize the production of those crops that are easily produced and handled in bulk and survive long-term storage well, in the interest of generating return on capital investment and foreign exchange, and only care about how it’s done insofar as that impacts the bottom line, you might conclude that capital expenditures to further minimize payroll would generally not be cost effective, that it would cost more to replace the remaining workforce than to keep it.

 

However, if you’re interested in guaranteeing the sustainability of production far into the future, despite climate change, while also halting soil loss, ending the use of poisons, preserving remaining diversity in both crop and native genomes, and rebalancing production for healthier diets, you may need both more sophisticated machinery and all the people you can recruit.

 

Such a complicated goal implies complex operations, and complex operations imply a large variety of tasks, some easily mechanized and others common enough to make mechanization worthwhile, even though challenging. Those that are neither common nor easily mechanized will fall to human workers, farmers and farmhands, who are far more adaptable than any machine.

 

At some point in the future it may become possible to build machines adaptable enough to take the place of a farmer, but until the annual cost of ownership of such a machine drops below the annual cost of one human worker, it won’t make economic sense to deploy them, and without an infrastructure to drive down the cost of robotics, that may never happen.

by   -   August 16, 2010

When I imagine robots tending land, it’s nearly always machines that are supported from above, on a beam that itself is supported by wheels running either on rails or in troughs that double as a delivery system for water, or on long legs that always only step on particular spots, so as to avoid compressing most of the surface, but in any case a machine capable of lifting even a record setting pumpkin or of uprooting small shrubs.

 

My interest is in improving agricultural practice, and I think robotics presents the approach most likely to serve that end, really the only approach with any chance of widespread success. (For me, robotic tractors are merely annoying, except as they help generate experience with autonomous navigation in an uncontrolled environment, applicable to other systems.)

 

Conversely, agriculture may be the largest potential market for robotics [in terms of revenue], one so large that it could drive the development of self-reconfiguring, self-reproducing robotic factories. This depends on the total cost of operation using robotic devices coming in below the total cost of operation using conventional methods, which includes increasingly expensive fuel for tractors (which might be replaced by solar-generated electricity in the robotic scenario).

 

I’m very encouraged to see robotics finally gathering momentum, and have hope that some of that momentum will find its way towards radically transforming agriculture.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

by   -   November 10, 2007

While it’s inevitable that agriculture will eventually incorporate robotics to some degree, what form that takes is a wide open question, one that, left to itself, would eventually find an answer driven [overwhelmingly] by the near-to-mid term financial interests of the most powerful players, a.k.a. agribusiness.

 

Without a transformational vision, more than parsimonious transformation is unlikely to result.

 

I aim to provide such a vision, and to help connect and empower those who find themselves enlivened by it.

 

This vision is about fusing ecological reasoning into every aspect of the technology employed to conduct land management, specifically including the management of land engaged in agricultural production.

 

That creating such a technology is possible is beyond reasonable doubt, but whether the resources to do so will be brought to bear in a timely manner, and whether that technology will find a clear path to widespread adoption, are far less certain.

 

It may require that we demand [or conjure] it into existence.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

by   -   September 15, 2007

Why use robots to do what people can do, when there are so many unemployed?

 

Before responding to that question, let me turn it around. Why, given that there are no laws preventing them from doing so, are so few people in the ‘modern world’ engaged in by-hand cultivation, or even cultivation using draft animals?

 

One big reason is that land isn’t free, and the cheapest land is located far from city markets, as well as from the amenities cities provide. And, even if there were still land for homesteading, there’s the matter of potable water, housing, tools, seed, food enough to last until the first crops come in, canning supplies and equipment if part of that crop has to last through the winter, and some means of transporting a portion of the crop to market. If you’re growing one of the local commodity crops, you can almost leave off the transportation part, since there will already be a network in place for that purpose, and you’ll only need to move your crop as far as the nearest node in that network, but you’ll also be competing with other producers benefitting from economies of scale for the thin margins they’re accustomed to. If, on the other hand, you’re growing watermelons in wheat country, you’ll have to provide your own transportation.

 

Okay, back to the original question, why robots, given that there are people in need of work?

 

People are slow. One person can just about manage five acres by hand, if they work at it full time. Depending on the climate and what’s being grown, that might be enough to feed as many as twenty, or at least provide them with vegetables, which isn’t such a bad consumer/producer ratio, but it’s far lower than the average for conventional agriculture. One person using the sort of equipment you see everywhere in rural America, can work between 600 and 1,000 acres, planted to crops like wheat or soybeans that lend themselves to bulk handling.

 

People are expensive. Who’s going to pay the unemployed to produce by hand a small fraction of what is already being produced far more cheaply by means of machines under direct human control? Even if the current cost of production were to rise several fold, current practice would still result in cheaper food than what workers earning minimum wage could produce by hand. Granted that the economics are better for crops that don’t lend themselves to linear mechanization (performing field operations while/by moving over the surface), and that a diet limited to those that do would be significantly impoverished.

 

People are lazy have other priorities. And well they should! (Personally, I’m a fan of Bucky Fuller’s idea of paying people, modestly, to go to school. They benefit by becoming more marketable, and society benefits through an increase in the skill-level of its workforce.)

 

People would [still] be needed. A conversion from tractors to small, autonomous machines [applying horticultural techniques] almost certainly would not result in a net displacement of workers, rather the reverse, and you’re more likely to find enough people (4..8, at a guess) willing to maintain (and augment*) the machines that manage a square mile of land than you are to find enough people (about 100) willing to work that land by hand.

 

*(Especially at first, it’s unlikely that robots would be able to do everything that needed to be done, and the gaps in their capabilities would have to be supplied otherwise, most likely by people.)

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

by   -   June 7, 2007

If you look at the current state of agriculture, and also at the preponderance of robotics work related to it, there isn’t much encouragement to be found for a vision of machines bringing better practices to bear on land management, and most of what there is is happening in [Europe], not here in the U.S.

 

Well, so be it, for now. There is good work being done, and as the variety of off-the-shelf robotic parts continues to increase, the power/price of computer equipment continues to rise steeply, and the economics of current agricultural practice continues to degenerate with rising costs for fuel and other inputs, the scene is gradually being set for a profound transformation in the way we use land to produce food, fiber, and plant materials for the production of synthetic fuels.

 

There is a danger that we won’t get serious about that transformation until the breakdown of current practice is far enough along to cause serious disruption and pain. There is also danger that robotics will first be used to put off real change as long as possible, by simply displacing what few humans remain in an otherwise essentially unchanged system.

 

On the other hand, there is plenty of opportunity to go around, especially for those who get in on the ground floor and develop the necessary technology to augment generic robotics and create energy-efficient machines designed to perform detailed management of productive land in ways that enhance fertility and repair ecological damage.

 

The demand for agricultural production isn’t going to go away, but we can dramatically change and radically improve the way we go about meeting it, with a far greater return on the R&D dollar than, for example, missile-bearing robotic helicopters.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.



Listening like a Human, Playing like a Machine
January 10, 2020


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