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Technology

Old McRobot had a Farm, Beep-I, Bzzt-I, O!

Science Not FictionBy Eric WolffDecember 6, 2010 3:00 PM

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Farming has long evaded true automation. Where manufacturers create controlled environments perfect for precisely attuned machines performing repetitive tasks, the messiness of biology has long made automating growing things extremely challenging. Robots didn't have the precision to pick things growing at uncertain heights, they didn't have the judgment to identify ripeness, and they weren't smart enough to navigate fields or greenhouses of uncertain geometry. Well, they used to not have those traits. Earlier this week, the Japanese Agriculture and Food Research Organization presented its strawberry picking robot: A droid that rolls along a track through fields of strawberries, scan the strawberries through stereoscopic cameras and check their color, then pick them if their ripe. In this way it can whip through 247 acres in 300 hours, far faster than the typical rate of 247 acres in 500 hours using human pickers. Naturally it's not ready for the market, but it's also not the only such project out there. The Japanese have direct competition from a pair of private companies, Agrobot and Robotic Harvesting LLC, both of which keep tighter wraps on their devices, but are laboring to get them ready for commercial production. And then there's the brainiacs at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, who are using swarm robotics and a complicated array of sensors to raise tomatoes from seedlings and then harvest them. The precision agriculture lab features four clay pots sunk into the floor and surrounded by artificial turf. Each pot is filled with soil and a tomato seedling, and equipped with sensors to measure soil nutrients and moisture. Then the sensors engage in constant communication with caretaker robots that can add water or fertilizer as needed. The swarming software allows the robots to deploy efficiently. As the tomatoes ripened, the robots check them for size and color, and when ripe, the robots pluck them off the vine. Like the Japanese robot, the system was designed for a controlled lab environment and not the woolly world of an actual farm. But the program's goal is to create an entire greenhouse in which the plants are raised and harvested by robots. All of which support any number of science fiction futures, especially ones in which most of the back breaking labor once performed by people is now performed by automatons. But I'm not entirely convinced this would be a good thing. Is a highly automated future a recipe for paradise on earth, or a Time Machine-like world in which the highly skilled have evolved separately from those with less education or abilities?

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