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Robotics

Bringing Affordable Robotics To Big Agriculture 196

Posted by Soulskill
from the feed-all-humans-feed-all-humans dept.
kkleiner writes "Boston-based Harvest Automation has made good on its mission to bring robots into the world of agriculture by introducing Harvey, a bot tasked with the rather modest job of moving plants around in nurseries and greenhouses because people aren't keen on doing the laborious work. At a price point of $30k each, two bots would cost the same as three unskilled human laborers who earn about $20k annually not to mention medical bills due to injury. Harvey's job may not be flashy, but considering the potted plant industry is valued at $50 billion, the bot's little impact could translate into significant money."
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Bringing Affordable Robotics To Big Agriculture

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  • Impressive. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @08:13PM (#44752153) Homepage Journal

    Living in the middle of Illinois there's a lot of farming news and farm shows around here, and you see an awful ot of impressive tech, and even science. They have self-driving combines and harvesters that use GPS, cell phone apps very useful to them (some control machinery), chemical testing of the spoil and plants available... you have to know a lot to farm these days.

    I know someone's going to complain "BUT JOBS!!!" but the jobs the tech in TFA are jobs are jobs only the most desperate want. Agriculture has been constantly replacing jobs with technology for centuries. It takes fewer and fewr to feed more and more.

    Someone's going to bring up GM, GM isn't used much around here, most seed is hybrid -- but the biochemists and agronomists have DNA study of the plants they breed.

    There's a TV show that comes on here on Sunday morning at 5:30 AM and it's the only OTA show that's not an infomercial, and It's pretty interesting. Here's their website. [agphd.com] I'm not a farmer but it is pretty interesting.

    I wouldn't consider potted plants "Big Agriculture." That's soybeans, corn, and wheat.

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Typo: Soil testing, not spoil testing. Fat fingers and I had a few beers.

      • by Cryacin (657549)
        Spoiler alert! So many spelling Nazi's feel cheated now.
        • by mcgrew (92797) *

          As "spoil" is a word te correction was warranted. It's ok, you fixed it with your grocer's apostrophe.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      We should be ready to support those on the bottom end. If you really want unstoppable efficiency then the govt has to subsidize labour to allow labour to survive. Not everyone needs a job, and it is about time we recognize that, but at the same time there's no sense making people's lives hell because they can't get one.

      • I worked in a field (pun intended) tangential (also pun intended) to the ag indudustry, and I have heard about the self-driving farm equipment. What I gathered (hearsay) was that the discussed tractors still had to be manned for safety reasons. For some reason government regulatory agencies aren't too keen on the idea of heavy deadly machines roaming about unattended. Neither are the property holders/insurers of said million-dollar equipment too happy on having it unattended lest the software bug fairy deci
        • I worked in a field (pun intended) tangential (also pun intended) to the ag indudustry, and I have heard about the self-driving farm equipment. What I gathered (hearsay) was that the discussed tractors still had to be manned for safety reasons. For some reason government regulatory agencies aren't too keen on the idea of heavy deadly machines roaming about unattended. Neither are the property holders/insurers of said million-dollar equipment too happy on having it unattended lest the software bug fairy decides to pay a visit in a financially inopportune way.

          I doubt if any of this is true. Why would someone buy unmanned machines that have to be manned? That would be pointless. Government agencies have little power to regulate what private individuals do on their own land, and even less when it involves agriculture. Farms are specifically exempted from many OSHA regulations, and even federal wage laws don't apply to agricultural workers.

          • Well doubt all you want, but I do know that the machines being talked about did have to be manned.
          • Why would someone buy unmanned machines that have to be manned?

            Think commercial aviation. Commercial aircraft fly around on autopilot a lot, they can even land themselves. Similarly the combines/tractors/etc are on autopilot. Precisely navigating the fields, precisely dispensing varied levels of fertilizer or pesticide as testing indicated. Such automation increases yields/profits.

            Government agencies have little power to regulate what private individuals do on their own land, and even less when it involves agriculture.

            That is so untrue. Do not confuse a lack of power with a decision to give a group with lobbyists a break.

          • by timeOday (582209)
            Here is an article with a good snapshot of tractor automation [farmindustrynews.com] as it currently exists in commercial implementations. It sounds pretty modest - a tractor pulling a grain cart autonomously follows alongside a combine. One vendor mentions safety, and none mention regulation as an issue.
      • We should be ready to support those on the bottom end.

        The poor spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, so they benefit the most from lower prices due to automation.

        • by slick7 (1703596)

          We should be ready to support those on the bottom end.

          The poor spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, so they benefit the most from lower prices due to automation.

          Really? And these same poor who spend a disproportionate amount of money on food, how do they pay for better housing, education, safer streets? The use of automation requires a greater knowledge base to maintain those systems, which means higher prices for the poor. Thereby forcing the poor to become a perpetual debt slave to the banksters that created this mess to begin with in 1913, signed into law by Woodrow Wilson who should be (have been) tried for treason.

        • by dryeo (100693)

          And yet the price of food seems to be increasing faster then most anything else.

          • by khallow (566160)

            And yet the price of food seems to be increasing faster then most anything else.

            That's the power of government intervention via farm subsidies.

      • we also need to stop the big over time mindset that can drive 60-80+ work weeks. Why should some people being pulling them when others are not working.

        • by khallow (566160)
          Why do you think there is a problem here? In a world where you're not punished for employing people, the wealth that the overtime-collecting worker gets would directly or indirectly employ other people.
    • by tragedy (27079)

      I know someone's going to complain "BUT JOBS!!!" but the jobs the tech in TFA are jobs are jobs only the most desperate want.

      Well, yes, but if the jobs go away, then the most desperate won't get to work and die in the gutters. Not that I don't think such jobs should be replaced by technology. I absolutely think they should be. There needs to be a safety net for the people who end up structurally unemployed as a result, however.

      • Lets just say the most of the world's industry food industry was done by robots. Then either stockholders in food held the world hostage to do work in other labors, there would be a style of welfare so everyone at least had enough food to survive, or a combination of the two. Sure, a man's job might be taken by a robot, but what was produced doesn't go away. If the owner of the robot wants to be nice, suddenly this man is free to study or work elsewhere and still have enough to eat. If the robot owner w
        • by Dare nMc (468959)

          > World hunger would for a large part go away if 30 billion a year could be donated.

          If only it was that simple. When you feed people, who (if a significant portion) only know how to produce food, you leave them with nothing much to do but have sex. Food is free, so they cannot afford to even try to produce food themselves. Then you have more people to feed (and keep warm/cold/whatever.) So if you pay $30 billion to feed the 862 million for free, then in 3 years you need to feed 1.5 Billion and need

          • Okay, you're saying the United Nations is wrong in that World Hunger is a problem that has been going away steadily, but could use an infusion to fix. So either you're wrong or the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization is. Hold your thought at that.

            Lets focus on your other notion," Food is free, so they cannot afford to even try to produce food themselves. " You're both right and wrong here. You're right that food dumping destroys economies making the people worse off than when you're st
            • by P-niiice (1703362)
              The way to feed people is to pay them wages so they can buy things. And if there's nothing to buy, help farmers produce it. All my opinion of course. Capitalism can work better, but the benefits of society need to be spread to those who need the money.
          • by chill (34294)

            Wow. No.

            History has shown for centuries that the wealthier a society becomes the smaller the family size gets. The more money people have, the less kids.

            By your logic the richest societies would be the most populous. Take a look at the growth rates of the top 20 economies in the world and you'll see that many of them are not only low but NEGATIVE. Plot it over time and you can see the correlation to economic growth is inverse to population growth.

            • by khallow (566160)
              The problem here is feeding someone doesn't making them wealthier. I think the previous poster's point is still valid even in this light.
      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        There needs to be a safety net for the people who end up structurally unemployed as a result, however.

        Agreed completely.

    • by Ol Olsoc (1175323)

      I know someone's going to complain "BUT JOBS!!!"

      It's only "But Jobs" when your job disappears.

      But all snark aside, we are intering such a disruptive time, that we will either come out the other side as humans spending all day in hammocks with unbrella drinks, or 99 percent of humanity will become redundant.

      Will we simply settle for enough food to fend off starvation, or will civilization rise to new heights as mundane labor become unnecessary?

      Or will we breed to the point of collapse? Or will idle humanity try to destroy itself?

      Personally, I fea

    • Re:Impressive. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by s.petry (762400) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @10:14PM (#44752841)

      Interesting points, and I agree with most of your perspective. What I take issue with in TFA is this statement. because people aren't keen on doing the laborious work. It reeks as badly as "These are jobs American's won't do" that require us to overlook illegal immigrants.

      Your explanation, I accept that certain things can be automated like soil testing. To claim "people don't want to work" I say is an appeal to emotion argument that nobody should fall for (yet sadly many do). People do want to work assuming that they get paid fairly for the work being done.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Joce640k (829181)

        To claim "people don't want to work" I say is an appeal to emotion argument that nobody should fall for (yet sadly many do). People do want to work assuming that they get paid fairly for the work being done.

        Try getting the playstaion generation to go outdoors and move plant pots around all day. You'll soon be browsing robot catalogs...

        • by s.petry (762400)

          Many of these menial jobs were how my generation learned to "work" and be responsible. The same could be said with fast food jobs, and picking veggies at the farm during the summer. Many of these kids now turning 16 want money, but don't have the opportunity to work. If you are 15, labor laws will prevent you from working. At 16 it's employment is not simply hindered by labor laws, but those jobs are filled with adults that should be working higher payed jobs that no longer exist.

          You are following a prop

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          Try getting the playstaion generation to go outdoors and move plant pots around all day.

          Offer them something other than a swift kick in the ass when you no longer have a use for them and maybe they'll be interested. You can't expect people to be happy to do menial labor for minimum wage with no hope of it leading anywhere.

          Moving pots (or flats) is an ideal job for a robot. We should let the robots do it. We should be figuring out what people are going to do in the mysterious future, not slinging insults.

    • by Livius (318358)

      jobs only the most desperate want

      Some of us believe that "the most desperate" are people too.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        How about training those people to do worthwhile jobs that will lift them from poverty? I think it's terrible that there are completely illiterate people in the US; I've known a couple of them.

    • Re:Impressive. (Score:5, Interesting)

      by caseih (160668) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @01:49AM (#44753821)

      I and my brothers farm a "big agriculture" farm of about 3000 acres. We're smack dab in the middle of harvest, with about 1000 acres to go. And we have no employees other than ourselves. Just the four of us (family farm). We're heavily mechanized. three of us run the harvest usually. Two on the combines, one on the trucks. We can knock down a 130 acre field in about 8 or 9 hours.

      And all this barely is enough income to fund the farm (capital costs can be huge!), and pay for 4 families.

      Other farms that grow other more labor-intensive (and more lucrative) crops do hire a lot of unskilled labor, but we're running into an interesting problem. Modern farm machinery requires interaction with a computer screen right there in the machine. As well a good working knowledge of math is required as ratios and calculations are needed all the time when setting machines, figuring out how much product is needed, etc. But many of the unskilled laborers that can be hired lack basic reading and writing skills.

      Anyway, I'd love a swarm of little robots to craw along the soil between the rows of plants and pick weeds. Eliminating herbicide use would be huge! And if we could somehow mechanically zap harmful insects but leave the beneficial ones alone, that'd also be wonderful. That'd still leave me with having to fight fungal infections, but it'd be a great start.

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        If you had a swarm of little robots eating bugs and so on, you also wouldn't have to plant monocultures. And lightweight robots don't create hardpan like machines do, so you could reasonably go without tilth simply by planting crops which produce deep tap roots in your guilds.

        • by caseih (160668)

          Yeah. It would open up a lot of possibilities, for sure if it were efficient to plant and harvest mixed crops that way.

          As for tillage, in my area many farmers don't till much at all anymore, though that increases reliance on herbicide, which has its own set of problems (resistance, mainly).

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        Excellent comment. To my fellow slashdotters, it's obvious that caseih is a farmer from his user name. CaseIH makes tractors. It used to be two companies; Case and International Harvester. We used Case tractors on the flightline when I was in the USAF; they don't (or didn't) only make farm equipment then.

        I see their ads all the time on TV.

        And if anyone is wondering what a farmer is doing at slashdot, farming isn't for dumb people any more; farmers have to know chemistry, biology, and tech. Today's farmers a

    • are jobs only the most desperate want

      So?

      Are you saying that just because they are desparate for work the loss of their potential jobs shouldn't be considered?

      At the end of the day, that wage would have been paid back into the community while a capital investment in a robot won't be, or at least not as efficiently.

      • by mcgrew (92797) *

        People have been losing jobs to robots for decades, and to technology for centuries. If you're worried about lost jobs, look at "hedge fund managers" (corporate pirates) who buy a business, drain its capital, fire its workers and shut it down.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @08:24PM (#44752215)

    ...two bots would cost the same as three unskilled human laborers who earn about $20k annually not to mention medical bills due to injury.

    That depends on the "unskilled" labor you're talking about.

    People legally able to work will get $7.25 per hour (minimum wage) only when they are scheduled to work. In other words, they will work when needed and it'll be seasonal. So, said worker will be really lucky to make $7,000 for the year at that job. AND the hours will be sporadic - he won't know what days he's working or even he's going to work that week. And some of these jobs, you show up at 5AM to get in line and wait until 7AM to see if you work that day - ALL UNPAID.

    I know because I had to do it to pay bills. And no, if HURTS your resume if you are a white collar worker. All those employers who say that they want you doing "something - anything" when looking for a "real" job are full of shit. If you work as a laborer, they think that you aren't good enough to work in your profession.

    It's better to be unemployed than "taking anything to work."

    Now illegal workers, that's a whole different ball of wax.

    • ...two bots would cost the same as three unskilled human laborers who earn about $20k annually not to mention medical bills due to injury.

      That depends on the "unskilled" labor you're talking about.

      It also depends on the ability to distinguish a one time cost like the purchase price of a robot, from a recurring cost such as an annual salary.

      • by s.petry (762400)

        What? A robot is a one time cost? Nope, not even close. Cheaper maintenance? Nope, that is not close either. It takes higher skills to maintain, reprogram, and repair robots. Then you have fuels required to power them.

        Look at farm equipment for example. Machinery that was supposed to be cheaper has become community or rental property because it's much more expensive than paying labor. Many places still use manual labor to harvest because it's cheaper to do than machine harvest.

    • by b4upoo (166390)

      It is a moral perversion not find jobs for the unskilled who are being displaced . More and more skilled people are also being displaced by technology as well. It has to be expected as public policy has changed and the results are not so good. For example by having women in the workforce we cut in half the value of human effort. Then we allow all minds of immigration which also deeply slashes at the value of human labor. Top that with technology that eliminates ever more jobs and we are half w

      • by s.petry (762400)

        You start out fine (first paragraph), but then go out to left field. The "Left" in the US is doing, and has done, the same exact things as the "Right". People claim Obama is a minority so does stupid things. Bush was just an idiot, so did stupid things. Clinton was just horny, so did stupid things. The other Bush was an asshole, and did stupid things. Reagan was an actor, and did stupid things. How many of these people are really stupid? How many times do you have to see both parties do the same exa

    • I used to live across the street from a nursery, with potted plants, and they had workers there moving plants around all-year-round.

      Fruit harvesters on the other hand, yeah, they don't work year round. In the winter they switch to pruning or oranges. There's basically farm work to do like that all year round, if you're willing to travel.
    • by gatkinso (15975)

      1) don't put the blue collar gig on your jacket if you think it is going to hurt you, but take it anyway

      2) be creative - if you are a paralegal (example) and there is a tech startup in your area maybe they could use some free legal assistance (research, patent search help, ect) - this goes on your resume

      • by P-niiice (1703362)
        Companies don't want free white-collar labor. It makes them suspicious - you get denied every time.
  • there has been talk of urban farming. putting greenhouses onto roofs of buildings to grow veggies. since you can't survive on $20k in NYC, these would be perfect for the job

    • no, it says that 2 of these would be perfect for the job.
      the job is keeping 3 poor people out of your building.

  • by manu0601 (2221348) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @08:47PM (#44752347)

    This is another move toward producing what humanity needs without human working. How many persons we need to feed the USA today?

    At some point we will have to admit that there must be an universal income regardless of work done, Otherwise the end of the story will be robots producing goods that nobody can afford except the robot owners.

    • by c0lo (1497653) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @09:13PM (#44752501)

      This is another move toward producing what humanity needs without human working. How many persons we need to feed the USA today?

      Doesn't this number depend on the efficiency of the transformation of the said persons in soylent green?

      (dark mood grin)

    • Socialism is of the devil. What makes you or anyone else honestly believe that the wealthy are going to play along with your idea? Wouldn't they just float the notion that it's better to reduce population than provide handouts?

      • by manu0601 (2221348)

        Do you have something against democracy? If the vast majority wants some profits to be shared so that people can live, the rich minority has to comply, or to install a dictatorship.

        Beside, redistributing wealth is not socialism. I did not talked about seizing machines and move them to public ownership.

        • If the vast majority wants some profits to be shared so that people can live, the rich minority has to comply.

          "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." -Benjamin Franklin

          Besides, the rich minority doesn't have to comply. They can leave the country. They have the resources to do that. Try voting your hand into their pocket, and Atlas will shrug so fast it'll make your head spin.

          • by drinkypoo (153816)

            Besides, the rich minority doesn't have to comply. They can leave the country. They have the resources to do that.

            They can leave, but they can't take the land with them, and all wealth is derived from the land. We all wish they would get the fuck out.

  • Now I'm waiting for big robots in affordable agriculture, I'm trying to work out what that means or looks like but it sure sounds cool and promising.

  • Blueberry robot (Score:5, Interesting)

    by EmperorOfCanada (1332175) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @09:14PM (#44752511)
    I was recently picking blueberries at a u-pick. This is easily the best year I have ever seen. Literally the bushes were breaking under the weight of the blueberries. You could eat the berries off the bushes like corn on the cob. The problem is that most berry areas are having a similar banner year along with there being a huge amount of berries planted. All this has resulted in a price crash. This crash has made it borderline uneconomic to harvest the berries. But if you had a robotic harvester this changes the pricing quite a bit. Once you have purchased the machine the price to run it should be very low and the amortized costs are there regardless if you run the machine or not. Thus you can harvest the berries even in banner years. Another option is to also plant excessive crops of different types and then focus your harvesting on the most profitable crops in any given year.

    It is my firm belief that robotic agriculture will change the entirety of how we produce food. A few simple examples of changes that few people discuss would be the terrain that is used for harvesting. Two of the key advantages of flat land for grains is that the crop will develop consistently across large areas and thus when harvested be of a predictable quality when turned into bread and whatnot. The other is that it is far easier to build the massive harvesting machines if they don't have to contend with any variations in the terrain. The goal of the massive machines is to vastly increase the ability of a single human to do a huge amount of work.

    But with robotic planting, tending, and harvesting you don't need to "multiply" the work of a single human. Thus the robots can be fairly small. Also the robots can adjust the feeding of the plants so to grow a fairly consistent crop in inconsistent terrain. Then in the end when it comes time to harvest. The robot can methodically harvest at the perfect moment for any given plant (repeatedly bypassing those not ready) plus it can methodically sort even down the single grain.

    Another advantage is where the cost of the entire cycle of agriculture can be so low that you could robotically convert marginal land into low producing land and still produce food at a very low cost. The return on quality land would be higher but by being able to cheaply bring marginal land into production it will form a scenario of relentless competition thus holding down prices. Plus once again due to the nature of robot economics once marginal land was in production the cost of continued production would be very low. This could also be carefully factored into the logistics calculations where a less efficient production is competitive where it might reduce some other cost such as shipping.

    This last factor might result in it being cheaper to produce greenhouses and then produce goods year-round much closer to the point of consumption rather than shipping them half way around the world.

    Also robotics can be used inefficient ways such as massively processing marginal land making it quite productive. Normally this is a time eating process that is not worth it. But if you can leave some robots cooking away in a forest for a few years and come back to find nutrient rich terra pretta then again the economics change.

    What I can't foresee is which direction agriculture will take. I have a feeling it will be mega massive monster farming companies with very few employees that depopulate the rural farm communities. But at the same time the low barriers to entry might mean that many people will jump in the moment a competitive opportunity is perceived. Personally where food is such a fundamental part of living (right there after clean water) that I don't believe that any small group of companies should be allowed to concentrate ownership of any nation's food production. If they get it wrong, or play evil games, massive numbers of people could suffer.

    One prediction that I will solidly make is that there will be very very very very few people employed in agriculture in 20-50 years.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      What I can't foresee is which direction agriculture will take. I have a feeling it will be mega massive monster farming companies with very few employees that depopulate the rural farm communities

      Our current soil use practices and disregard for atmospheric pollution, have only one logical end, which is hydroponic gardening in greenhouses. This is an ideal environment for robots, but it won't permit the use of varied terrain.

  • Is it just me, or were we all hoping to see Huey, Dewey, and Loie from the movie "Silent Running". That what I think of when I think of agricultural robots.

    • by plover (150551)

      When I saw the video of them scurrying about with their front facing pot pincers, all I could think of was a Pixar-like voice saying "Bare-E".

  • They could get rid of half those robots in the video if that guy walking around with his hands in his pockets was doing some actual work.

  • by bmo (77928)

    Those 3 laborers can also dead-head, apply fertilizer, identify disease, fix the sprinkler system, and harvest without damaging the product.

    Among other things.

    How much would a robot, that does all those things, cost now?

    --
    BMO

    • by plover (150551)

      A business owner doesn't look at a person who does five tasks and say "I will replace your entire 40-hour-per-week job with one robot that does all five of your tasks." They look at the tasks they need done, the labor expense spent on each of those tasks, and say "I will automate the tasks that I can, and cut payroll hours accordingly."

      If you needed four full-time employees to work your greenhouse yesterday, and it took a total of 20 hours per week to move pots, you now only need three full-time employees,

  • You Have Thirty Seconds To Comply.
  • I don't understand why this is news. Automation has been used in agriculture for a long time in applications much more advanced than this. Why should we get excited about a simplistic robot which moves pots around according to explicit user instructions and pre-placed guidance tape? Show me a robot that, based on the type of plant, moves it to a suitable area where it will receive just the right amount of sun, or perhaps a robot that will ensure each plant gets exactly the right amount of water/nutrients

  • Which is it? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pkbarbiedoll (851110) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @11:32PM (#44753219)

    > because people aren't keen on doing the laborious work.

    Or...

    > two bots would cost the same as three unskilled human laborers who earn about $20k annually not to mention medical bills due to injury.

    My money is on door #2.

  • by Culture20 (968837) on Tuesday September 03, 2013 @11:34PM (#44753229)
    At this rate, adults and robots will take all the jobs young adults used to have, making them even more useless by the time they graduate college.
  • by blackest_k (761565) on Wednesday September 04, 2013 @03:10AM (#44754023) Homepage Journal

    I was shown a pretty impressive set up in a huge greenhouse set up in south lincolnshire which produced pots of herbs.
    The sowing of pots was largely automated and there were rails running down the length of the greenhouse with metal trays across the rails.

    Essentially the rails were loaded at one end and robots would lift the trays and move them along the rails as the herbs grew. watering was automated so it was long production lines the length of the green house and the robots took care of the plants and the far end of the line the pots were taken off and shipped to supermarkets using minimal manual labour.

  • Since its built with off the self parts, the cost to produce a remote controlled car (which it basically is) must be fairly cheap (I'll naively say a couple grand). I know there some other hardware, computers, custom software....in my mind that might be another ~13K a pop. so I'm thinking 50% margins. nice :)

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