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self-replicating factories

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   -   January 4, 2009

For the time being, it probably doesn’t make good economic sense to dedicate sophisticated machinery to managing a patch of ground that’s unprotected from the elements, when it might just as well be working inside a greenhouse, where it actually can operate 24/365, and where it won’t need the structural strength to stand up to gale force winds.

 

On the other hand, greenhouses are most useful when combined with regular gardens and used seasonally to start plants earlier than they could be started in the open, or when the shade from other plants would impede sprouting or development. Even a relatively frail machine, better adapted to spending its time indoors, might venture out in calm weather, long enough to set out plants it had started in trays and peat pots, provided it was sufficiently mobile.

 

This scenario, a machine that does the tedious work of planting seeds and tending plants in a greenhouse, moving them out to open ground when conditions allow, is what might be termed a natural starting point for the development of such machines, a more limited, more surmountable engineering problem than a machine intended to perform all aspects of land management. A machine applied this way need not be able to perform absolutely every horticultural operation to be useful, nor would it need to be able to deal with a completely uncontrolled environment.

 

It’s very likely that there are other such natural starting points for the development of cultibots. Collectively, these natural starting points represent a threshold of minimal investment before a return on that investment can be forthcoming. Once that threshold has been crossed, at any point, incremental improvements should be adequate to insure that machines which can handle the whole job are eventually produced, and the return on that initial investment could be very sweet indeed.

 

There’s another, equally important threshold to consider, the automation of the production of these machines. So long as they are hand-crafted prototypes, they have no chance of competing economically with hand labor, or, as is more likely, with the transportation of produce from milder climates. Mass production will get them into the game.

 

Self-reconfiguring factories that not only build such machines but which can also replicate, by building the equipment for new factories and the machines to assemble them, will drive down the cost to the point where the logic behind it all becomes inexorable, but by that point we’re no longer talking only about machines for land management, and there had best be very solid safeguards in place. The point of mentioning this scenario in the context of cultibotics at all is that land management may be the one application of robotics where the size of the potential market could justify the investment to cross this threshold. Once crossed, of course, the technology would be generally applicable.

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.



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