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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   -   July 26, 2009

Your typical farm raises at most a few crops, frequently only one. Because it’s what I know, and because it’s in practically every processed food you can buy, let’s take wheat as an example.

 

Wheat comes in two main growing patterns, winter and spring. Winter wheat is planted in early fall, where winters are relatively mild, grows to a lawn-like few inches in height before winter, and then resumes growing as winter recedes, and is ready for harvest in late spring or early summer. Spring wheat is planted in late winter or early spring and is ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Either way the ground looks much like a disaster zone between harvest and replanting, especially with old-school tillage which begins with plowing under the stubble from the last crop, and, like most disaster zones, it’s a prolific source of dust. To live in wheat country is to live with a landscape in this mutilated condition several months out of each year.

 

The fault isn’t so much with the technology in use (aside from the choice of tillage regimes), but is rather a result of monoculture, the planting of a single crop year after year. Even using standard tillage practices, something as simple as a crop rotation system might have wheat harvest immediately followed by the planting of something else, clover for instance. However, much of wheat country gets insufficient rainfall to support more than one crop per year. In fact, without irrigation, one crop every two years is more common on the high plains, meaning that even during the height of growing season half the land under cultivation continues to look desolate and contribute to the dust-load in the lower atmosphere, at the cost of some of its own fertility.

 

Nothing about the equipment in common use precludes crop rotations, and row cropping systems can manage two, or even three crops in the ground at the same time, but three is about the limit. Using conventional methods, intermixing a dozen or more species, other than for pasture or hay, is unthinkable, no matter what benefit might result. So is continuous cropping unthinkable. You can grow pumpkins among the corn stalks in the fall and snow peas climbing up them in the early spring, but sooner or later you’ll need to turn under the debris, if not to prepare a seed bed for more corn then to keep the thistles in check. [Using conventional methods you can’t simply uproot the corn stalks and gather up the pumpkin and pea vines and toss it all on the compost pile, at least not working around corn sprouts that were planted through the debris.]

 

For continuous cropping, you need more deft handling of soil and plant materials than implements pulled by tractors can provide. You need something more like what a gardener does.

 

With continuous cropping there’s always something in the ground to break the wind and keep down the dust, and while the field will never have the look of ripe crop of monoculture wheat, all ready for harvest at once, it will also never look like a desert, nor, with proper handling, like a thistle patch.

 

What you get is a landscape that’s more varied throughout the year, but not so starkly punctuated by season.

 

What you also get is more variety in production. Instead of wheat, wheat, and more wheat you might also get squash, beans, onions, peppers, millet, and so forth, as well as perennials like sand plums, apricots, currents, and mulberries, all the makings of a healthy diet.

 

The key to making this possible is dexterity combined with attention to detail, such as could only, until recently, be supplied by people. The key to making it practical is robotics.

 

To the extent there is any close connection between the quality of land management and the quality of life that land supports, it follows that the quality of life achievable through the best available land management method will be better than what can be achieved without it.

 

You cannot economically duplicate, by any other means, the quality of land management that is achievable through the appropriate application of robotics.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.

by   -   September 13, 2007

One measure by which conventional agriculture likes to judge itself, the output per man hour, or, put another way, the percentage of the population directly engaged in crop production, is seriously misleading, because it in effect presents the extraction of human attention from the process as a measure of success. They aren’t focusing on attention, of course, other than to find ways to spread it thinner, over a larger area of land, because it’s expensive.

 

In this effort to spread human involvement over more area, the first thing out the window is any operation which can’t be performed linearly, like plowing, by moving through the field along rows, and the main casualty of this limitation is intensive intercropping. You can mix two or maybe even three crops together in alternate rows in the same field, but not twenty, like you might in your garden; it’s just too cumbersome. It’s really more convenient to plant just one crop at a time, and as we move upscale, from oxen to tractors pulling implements a hundred feet wide, that convenience becomes a matter of practical necessity, and even a minor lack of uniformity in the land itself becomes an annoyance. The result is flattened fields planted to a single crop, as far as the eye can see, and travelers on any highway passing through it hurrying along because it’s so boring.

 

Attention isn’t the only thing being extracted in this scenario, so is soil fertility. Tillage, something we’ve taken for granted for ten thousand years, means unnatural aeration of the soil, which in turn means rapid oxidation of its organic content. Single-cropping means long months of exposure to wind with minimal cover or none at all. The net effect is called “desertification”.

 

So what does all this have to do with robots, and how might they be part of a solution rather than simply making the problem worse?

 

The simplest definition of a robot is a machine that responds to its environment. The nature of that response might seem trivial in many cases, as in determining the exact position of the tip of a welding rod in relation to the parts being welded and adjusting accordingly, but it’s a start, and, as robotic technology advances, more sophisticated responses become possible.

 

It’s unfortunate that the same word, when applied to a human, means exactly the opposite. For this reason I generally refer to “robotics” rather than “robots” to make it more clear that I’m talking about technology in which the acquisition of information and its use in determining the behavior of the machine are essential characteristics, in many cases the most important ones.

 

It’s also unfortunate that “robot” overlaps so much with “android”, which refers to a human-form robot that mimics human behavior or behaves in ways similar to humans. I’m not talking about androids.

 

What I envision are machines that are designed to move gingerly through thick growth, performing simple operations like planting seeds and pulling weeds, while creating a minimum of disturbance. They might be supported on long, spider-like legs that only ever put weight on particular, gravel-covered spots, or they might be suspended from overhead rails or cables, but they would be engaged in paying detailed attention to what was happening on the ground, including the presence of animals as well as the slow-paced growth of plants, intervening only occasionally as compared with the amount of information they would be processing, although to the casual observer it might look like they were awfully busy.

 

These machines would have only a modest rate of energy consumption, and might easily get what they need from solar panels, with any excess going to charge batteries that would allow them to continue to operate into the night, and at least keep watch 24/7.

 

I can only envision such machines, of course, because they don’t yet exist.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.



Introspective Robots
August 9, 2020


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