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Robotics Hardware

Startup Testing Mobile Farmbots 243

Posted by Soulskill
from the robot-get-me-carrots dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Wired reports on Harvest Automation, a Massachusetts company developing small robots that can perform basic agricultural labor. The ones currently being tested in greenhouses and plant nurseries are 'knee-high, wheeled machines.' 'Each robot has a gripper for grasping pots, a deck for carrying pots, and an array of sensors to keep track of where it is and what's around it. Teams of robots zip around nursery fields, single-mindedly spacing and grouping plants. Key to making the robots flexible and cost-effective is designing them to work only with information provided by their sensors. They don't construct a global map of their environment, and they don't use GPS. The robots have sensors that detect boundary markers, a laser range finder to detect objects in front of them, and a gyroscope for navigating by dead reckoning. The robots determine how far they've traveled by keeping track of wheel rotations.'"
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Startup Testing Mobile Farmbots

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  • Visions (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NEDHead (1651195) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @12:17AM (#38039036)

    of Silent Running come to mind

  • by grantek (979387) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @12:20AM (#38039052)

    If you need a bit better pattern recognition or control there's thousands of people willing to do farming from their PCs for free.

    • Speaking of pattern recognition, did anyone else read "fembots"?

    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      If you need a bit better pattern recognition or control there's thousands of people willing to do farming from their PCs for free.

      Farmville?

  • by Dr. Spork (142693) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @12:28AM (#38039084)

    The efficiency of farming (yield value per area+inputs) is going to have to grow a lot as global population increases and gets richer. This is obviously one step in that direction. Sure, this robot is laughably primitive compared to Google's self-driving car, but future generations will do better. I think that in 20 years, we'll be able to intersperse multiple simultaneous crops in the same field, which is good for the soil, reduces the need for fertilizer and pesticide, and generates a more value.

    The most important reason why we don't see this sort of farming on a large scale is because it requires much more fine-motor work and is incompatible with the machines we use today. But once those machines get substantially cheaper and more dexterous than people, I think we'll make this transition. Our food will be better for it, and there will be more of it. I don't think that this is very far off in the future.

    • I envision a design more akin to those cargo-container gantry cranes they use at ports. With multiple arms hanging below the chassis to tend to tasks. That way the bulk of the robot can be above the plants, with the slim supports/wheels being able to navigate in-between rows of plants.

    • by DigiShaman (671371) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @01:03AM (#38039216) Homepage

      I'm a bit concerned about all of this advancement to support extended population growth. My gut feeling is that we are just setting up ourselves for a big fall the more we detach ourselves from nature. Like a house of cards. It can only go so high before the entire system collapses. It's just a matter of when. For example, a high-altitude nuclear warhead my never cause bodily harm. But the EMP it releases is enough to shutdown entire nations with all microchips fried. That means no transportation and running water. Within weeks, people start dieing and bodies decomposing where they last crawled for survival. Truly scary stuff.

      • by Fnord666 (889225) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @02:39AM (#38039570) Journal

        I'm a bit concerned about all of this advancement to support extended population growth. My gut feeling is that we are just setting up ourselves for a big fall the more we detach ourselves from nature. Like a house of cards. It can only go so high before the entire system collapses. It's just a matter of when. For example, a high-altitude nuclear warhead my never cause bodily harm. But the EMP it releases is enough to shutdown entire nations with all microchips fried. That means no transportation and running water. Within weeks, people start dieing and bodies decomposing where they last crawled for survival. Truly scary stuff.

        I hate to be the one to break it to you, but we are way past that point already. Modern farm equipment has more electronics than your car does. These would just be a bit of icing on the cake.

        • by EdZ (755139)
          I wonder how expensive EMP-hardening consumer electronics actually is? Is wrapping all the sensitive gubbins in a Faraday cage with all I/O optically isolated not sufficient?
      • by Ihmhi (1206036)

        Look dude, I feel the same way. I'm less than 10 miles from NYC and if any bad shit did happen, my hometown would probably get caught in the blast. I'm also very keenly aware of how easily our infrastructure could go to shit on a local, statewide, national, or global scale.

        The best defense against this is knowledge. You're posting on a website dedicating to nerds - people who implicitly have a love for knowledge. When you have a concern that something bad is going to happen, you prepare for it. We back up o

        • The problem the OP points out is not going to be solved by knowing how to hunt and fish.

          The problem is that you can cripple our ability to feed 7 billion people without at all reducing the number of people. You can go into the woods and hunt a deer, but so can a million other people, which means that in two weeks after the stores run out of food there won't be any deer left to hunt.

          But there are obvious government-level solutions to problems like this. You just create a "strategic food reserve" of nonperish

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        If a country that possesses nuclear warheads and ICBMs is pissed off enough to launch one at you, you've got a lot more to worry about than whether your tractor has a microcontroller in it or not. In other words, an atmospheric EMP pulse is only going to be set off in preparation for a full scale ground assault so your ass will be drafted in about 24 hours flat. Look on the bright side though, the military's got lots of K rations.
      • by couchslug (175151)

        A remarkable amount of equipment doesn't use microchips or can have delicate controls bypassed, though it would make good sense to have a "combat bypass" control option (and spare boxes) just in case.

        EMP creates surges by passing fields over POWER LINES. That won't do squat to disconnected spare parts.

        EMP is not guaranteed to knock out all circuitry, and much equipment such as diesels with mechanical controls will still be running. Points ignitions and simple electronic ignitions will run, so millions of en

      • by Dr. Spork (142693)
        I don't think you're right. I think it's cities that will save us, so I'm all for getting people off the land and into dense cities. Here is a sampling of some of the good stuff this does:
        • Prosperity grows. There are more opportunities in cities to make use of every talent.
        • Literacy and educational achievement grows.
        • The gender gap shrinks; women become more empowered when they move off the land into cities.
        • Fertility decreases dramatically, largely as a result of the previously mentioned items. If you're
    • Eventually, global warming will open up the tundra for farming. As the planet keeps warming up, it can sustain more life, which is fine until the next cooling cycle starts in 10,000 years or so.
      • Of course . . . (Score:4, Insightful)

        by StefanJ (88986) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @01:54AM (#38039398) Homepage Journal

        . . . while the tundra is warming (and turning into swamps, not arable farmland), the vast subtropical regions where most of the world's population lives will be subject to desertification and/or devastating storms.

        Harsh winters are GOOD for agriculture. They stir up the soil and kill off insects and weeds. We'll be getting fewer of those hard winters as things warm up.

        Robot farmhands are nice for societies with lots of excess wealth. Don't expect them to save our asses.

    • by msobkow (48369) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @01:10AM (#38039246) Homepage Journal

      we'll be able to intersperse multiple simultaneous crops in the same field...

      The most important reason why we don't see this sort of farming on a large scale is because it requires much more fine-motor work...

      Soil degrades if you don't mix your crops over time, but it's not a process that would "leach" from one small plot to it's neighbour. As long as crops are rotated annually, you're good to go. Bigger machines are more efficient at harvesting. Having multiple crop types also means needing multiple machine types, adding to expense.

      As far as I know, small plots were only used for family produce by the old family farms, but the bulk of the land was turned over quarter by quarter to specific crops. Things may be different in vegetable or fruit farms/orchards, but we don't really have those in Saskatchewan.

    • by LordLucless (582312) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @02:33AM (#38039546)

      The efficiency of farming (yield value per area+inputs) is going to have to grow a lot as global population increases and gets richer

      Not necessarily. Using the most modern farming techniques, we produce far more food than the population that grows it actually requires. The problem is, the areas that have the largest (and most quickly growing) populations, are the areas that use the least effective farming techniques.

      Apart from stopping the wars that suck up their manpower, and pillage their crops, getting modern farming in widespread use in the third world is the big step to combating world hunger. And if the pattern is anything like what we've seen, once their standard of living is raised, they stop having as many children, and population will taper off. Much of the western world (US and Australia I know for sure) is currently at below-replacement levels of reproduction.

      • by he-sk (103163)

        Not necessarily. Using the most modern farming techniques, we produce far more food than the population that grows it actually requires. The problem is, the areas that have the largest (and most quickly growing) populations, are the areas that use the least effective farming techniques.

        The problem is waste in the developed world. We already produce more than enough food to feed everybody on the planet. But half of what is produced for Europe and the US is thrown out before it even reaches the consumer. Meanwhile our food is still so cheap that the sustenance farmer in Africa cannot compete. It's not that his farming techniques are not effective enough, it's that our industrialized food production is much cheaper and he can't sell his crop. He loses his livelihood and now the nation is dep

    • by Splab (574204)

      Why is it laughable primitive?

      I'll bet you any amount that the google car would be unable to do what that robot does; doesn't that make the google robot laughable primitive at farming?

  • by Gr8Apes (679165) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @12:28AM (#38039086)

    And visions of Tom Selleck shooting our garden tending overlords appear in my mind....

  • by theshowmecanuck (703852) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @12:49AM (#38039166) Journal
    Here is a picture [newscientist.com] of the agro robots. It's OK, there are no goats around.
  • by flyingfsck (986395) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @01:02AM (#38039214)
    Pruning and harvesting trees is a difficult problem to solve, but mathematically very interesting. After all, what is the best way to prune an apple tree or a vine? Ask two farm workers how to prune the same tree and you will get a long discussion with no definite answer, but there certainly is method in the madness, which could be reduced to a tree algorithm. This is the 21st century evolution of the the 20th century automatic harvesters for simple grain/grass crops.
    • by znerk (1162519)

      Interestingly enough, apples (and I assume other fruits) have been harvested using machinery for decades, at least. I recall a trip to an apple orchard when I was in elementary school (nearly 30 years ago) where they showed us the equipment - in essence, they slung a tarp beneath the tree, and a big motor with a giant rubber band wrapped around itself and the tree shook the tree to make the apples fall.

      Sounds like something out of a cartoon, when I describe it like that...

  • by WindBourne (631190) on Sunday November 13, 2011 @01:22AM (#38039288) Journal
    America, in fact the west, has a serious issue with illegals. However, the west, is by far, the worst. We have neo-cons that encourage illegals to be here working for below prevailing wages, while not paying taxes. Then we have dems leaders that push for amnesty and allowing more illegals in, as long as they get amnesty. That is just plain twisted. Now, why do these illegals come to America (and canada, EU, UK, and Australia)? Because even below minimum wage, they still make more money than what they make in their own nations. The problem is that western levels of goods, count on taxes being paid as well as re-investment in the local economy. As such illegals who work in the nation, but then send the money out of the nation, are just as bad as those that outsource to China who manipulates money, dumps monster amounts of pollution on the planet (in 2015, China will dump more than 50% of all CO2; in 2019 +-, they will have accounted for 1/2 of ALL co2 that man has ever emitted, and that assumed a slower growth path then they are on; worse, it does not include their SO2, mercury, lead, chemical pollutions, etc, etc, etc that are dumped in the Sea of China, The pacific ocean, and in our shared airs). Basically, Illegals are not cheap enough to warrent keeping them here, and the real costs is the damage to western society. Those libs that back giving jobs to illegals because they deserve it are about as stupid as as the neo-cons: they will destroy the west and esp. America, due to lack of thought.

    The only real way to save the west, and ultimately, the world, is to automate. In particular, food should be automated. Right now, less than 2% of American labor goes into Ag. One of the bigger issues is that we now import a lot of food. But we increasingly import shrimp from farms in South America and Asia. How bad are these? HORRIBLE. Both use loads of anti-biotics. IN addition, they do it not in isolated ponds, but along the shoreline. THis is some of the most important areas on the earth, and it is being destroyed to send sickly shrimp to the west. Insane.
    Likewise, we get loads of food from China. Hell, Nestle is now producing candy in China. SICK. At this time, upper middle class Chinese buy food from USA, Canada, Australia, and EU. Why? Because they know that the good that is coming from China is loaded with mercury, lead, and many other pollutants. And this is happening again, because China is cheating, and companies like Nestle are greedy as all hell.

    Ever been on a Chinese commercial fishing boat? I have talked to a fishery person that was working on one to make certain that China was not stealing or mis-labelling. She was telling afterwards that she no longer eats fish unless it is from USA, Canada, EU, UK, or Japan. She tells me that China was the worst. Disgusting conditions.

    Robotics will solve a lot of these issues. We can grow our own shrimp here cheaper than importing them. Likewise, the same is true of veggies, fish, etc.

    It is time for America, and the west, to take a stand and say enough is enough. We need to quit backing those that pollute and destroy our planet. Time to put a tax on all goods based on pollution from where they come from.
    • Now, why do these illegals come to America (and canada, EU, UK, and Australia)?

      Hardly at all in Australia because our border is pretty much impossible to cross. If there was a land bridge to Indonesia it would be a different story. Though I should point out that I know this guy, a civil engineer, from Malaysia who moved here recently and got a job inspecting tilt up concrete slabs. Workers are paid below the legal minimum and don't seem to get their benefits. Many of them may not have work visas. So there is a grey labor market here but its not not as overt as it is in the US. My one

      • You folks have a much bigger illegal issue than you realize. The problem is that your unemployment is low, so your gov. is ignoring it. The only reason for low unemployment is that China is buying your resources. They have started with their real estate bubble popping. It is expected that concrete and iron bubbles will pop in about 3 months. Once they do, they will quit importing iron and Calcium Silicate (cement). They are about to slow down their buying. And where have they imported the majority from for
        • That resources boom is pushing up the value of the aussie dollar and threatening to move my engineering job to Europe. Ending it would give me job security.

          • There you go. Of course, the company may lose so many sales that they have to let you go. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
      • by pbjones (315127)

        lots of illegals in Australia, but we only care about those that come by boat, the backpackers and students that over stay visas and work on farms are tolerated, wtf?

        • lots of illegals in Australia, but we only care about those that come by boat, the backpackers and students that over stay visas and work on farms are tolerated, wtf?

          Illegals in Australia are small in number because of our oceanic border. Its not that they are tolerated, just that there aren't many of them.

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      The problem is that western levels of goods, count on taxes being paid as well as re-investment in the local economy. As such illegals who work in the nation, but then send the money out of the nation, are just as bad as those that outsource to China [...]

      What makes you think illegal immigrants don't pay taxes?
      If they're being paid above the table, the IRS takes its bite of their paycheck before they ever touch it.
      And illegals generally don't collect social security, disability, worker's comp, or anything else that's deducted from their checks.

      Good or bad, our agricultural system is built on having a steady influx of (il)legal immigrants from South America do our dirty work.
      The States that pushed out immigrants found themselves fucked when their crops starte

      • by gl4ss (559668)

        now that's a new, illegals paying taxes. as someone from finland I just assumed that they didn't, because uh, you need to be legal to pay taxes, have social security number and all that.
        I just assumed they were paid under the table, but this way the employer doesn't need to care about that they're illegals?

        around here there's this bigger problem of outsourcing manual labor to out of country companies(company a buys construction from company b, company b then buys the construction from company c which is a p

      • First off, I know then a few illegals. I know of one situation in which an illegal married an American (made it look like he was still living in Mexico) , then built up a company that is doing loads of work in Chicago suburbs, using illegals. Now, he is getting divorced because his American wife found out about his Mexican wife. During the investigation, they found out that his declared 70K in profits was over 750K yearly since 2001. And the illegals that he employed? MOST PAID NO TAXES. The thing is that
  • I thought it was a mobile app for automated gold farming.
  • I'm just throwing this out there for the other five people that have seen this movie and know what I am talking about.

    • Not the young ones obviously. But I think the more obvious reference is star wars. I imagine C3PO roaming an Australian cattle station ambushing cows and annoying them into going in for muster.

  • You can almost certainly do this on a standard farm but likely it's going to be much much easier to do this with a hydroponics setup with side rails allowing robots to move quickly up and down the rows to place and tend the plants.

    The big thing in this type of scenario I think that would still require the "human touch" so to speak would be harvesting. You could probably handle that with video recognition and soft grippers but there's still a chance of damaging the plant while picking the fruit/vegetable.
    • A lot of harvesting is already largely automated; this article's "new thing" is pre-harvest agricultural automation - specifically, using 'bots to plant stuff (or at least place seedlings and potted plants). Perhaps the foodstuffs you're describing won't be able to be automated (yet), but if it comes right down to it, we can grow our own tomatoes, melons, and squash to supplement the mass-produced (read: automated) foodstuffs like grains and tree-borne fruit. If bots can plant seeds, other bots can water/fe

  • That is nice, but I like the idea of vertical farming [omegagarden.com], a good solution for countries in the northern hemisphere where you can't grow anything outdoors between October to May. With vertical gardens you can grow inside hangars or even in standard size containers during cold period.

  • What I really need is one that understands the binary language of moisture vaporators. I wonder if they have any plans to make one.
  • The article misses the long term point. One day a small team of farmbots can and will replace both herbicide and insecticide and, to some extent, fertilizer. Powered by the sun, they will spend all daylight hours simply moving up and down the rows of desired plants, distinguishing them from non-desired plants by AI, and using very simple tools to remove/kill those plants. They will similarly be able to identify and kill or spot treat various undesireable "bugs" and other parasites or diseases. They will
    • by Dr. Spork (142693)
      I totally agree. I like the name and the roomba analogy. I suspect that $1000 is an underestimate by an order of magnitude, and also that it won't be practical to make these things self-powering. It's much better to let them run on rechargeable batteries, like the roomba. That way they can also work at night. But yes, I really hope that this is the future of agriculture - and the near future, as near as possible!
      • Well, perhaps $1000 per row -- as I noted at the end, it might be better to build a large hoebot capable of doing 20 rows at once with a single brain. The issue of batteries vs solar (or some mix of the two) would have to be worked out on a cost-benefit basis. Assuming 20 rows 1 meter wide (each), one could cover the entire unit with 10KW worth of cells fairly simply, which gives you more than enough energy to move forward at a steady crawl and perform both the computational and cultivational tasks. Tha

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