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Future of Farming Geared for Efficient Robotic Workers
11/28/2012

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Dorhout's Prospero robot farmer looks somewhat like a mechanical spider, crawling and planting various kinds of seed in ideal locations for that particular crop.   (Source: Dorhout R&D LLC)
Dorhout's Prospero robot farmer looks somewhat like a mechanical spider, crawling and planting various kinds of seed in ideal locations for that particular crop.
(Source: Dorhout R&D LLC)

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Greg M. Jung
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Economics
Greg M. Jung   11/28/2012 9:40:05 AM
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Very interesting article.  I think robots will be used more and more for agricultural applications as time goes on. 

One important thing to consider is the economic costs/benefits of using robots.  Farming typically has low profit margins and the use of any expensive equipment (including robots) must be economically justified by the farmer. If the costs are low, then robotic farming would make sense.

naperlou
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Re: Economics
naperlou   11/28/2012 11:11:11 AM
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Greg, that's a good point.  Actually, for grain crops these are not really necessary.  Grain farmers have lots of data about their fields from various sources and the equipment is already computer controlled.  For example, combines have real time yield monitors.  A computer in the cab is fed the data and this is collected on a memory device.  Some farmers may process this at home.  Many take it to their farm supply dealer and they can then look at detailed maps of fields.  In the case of the much talked about drought resistant seed varieties, it would make no sense to plant this all through the farm if there are areas that were not that much affected.  That type of seed is more expensive.  The machines that dispense fertilizer, herbicide and pesticides are already computer controlled, using the data mentioned above. 

We are already at 1% of the population of the US involved in farming.  That gets us massive amounts of food to consume here and to export.  We are the biggest exporter of food in the world.  Where these technologies are useful is for fruit and vegetable crops.  I see the robots, coupled with indoor growing environments, as the future of those crrops.

JimT@Future-Product-Innovations
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Re: Economics
JimT@Future-Product-Innovations   11/28/2012 1:03:16 PM
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I think you guys are right – I have some very Hi-Tech farmers in my extended family and from what I've seen, these spider planters would be very cost prohibitive and less than efficient if planting one seed at a time.  My guess on cost per spider has got to be at least several thousand dollars.  Then, to individually analyze soil on a seed by seed basis ,,,Seems like technology overkill.

tekochip
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Rugged Environment
tekochip   11/28/2012 10:09:43 AM
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That's a pretty nasty environment, too.  Just take a look at the abuse a typical tractor goes through.

Nancy Golden
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Ambivalent Response
Nancy Golden   11/28/2012 3:52:41 PM
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I'm just sitting here trying to wrap my mind around the concept. I am certainly used to technology helping to improve task efficiency in many areas - but robotic workers in farming? I guess it makes sense for large operations, but the small family farms and hobby farms represent a way of life that is irreplaceable. Technology as usual is a mixed blessing...

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Rob Spiegel   11/28/2012 4:41:57 PM
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I understand your ambivalence, Nancy. My guess is that these tools will be used more on corporate farms rather than the family farm. I like the idea that a machine will replace the back-breaking work of migrant workers.

 

 

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Cabe Atwell   11/29/2012 2:25:02 AM
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Good point Mr. Spiegel, wherever people suffer, robots can save the day. Unfortunately, those laborers need that money. It's a catch 22 for sure.

Most industrial farming is fairly automated already. The next step is removing all human intervention. When it's cheap enough to do so, bots will be the only option. Where are all of our elevator operators today? Out-sponged by robots... of sorts.

C

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Rob Spiegel   11/29/2012 11:26:53 PM
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Good point, Cabe. Yet it's a long tradition of technology displacing workers. The printing press displaced thousands of scribes. Remember secretaries? Thankfully, in most cases, the jobs that are displaced are mind-numbing and soul-killing.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Cabe Atwell   11/30/2012 12:12:05 AM
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Even though these jobs are soul-crushing. I have to admit, I felt more crushed in many of the engineering jobs I've had. At the time, I fantasized about doing manual labor jobs at those times.

All those printing press people, elevator operators, not all of them recovered. They instead just lost themselves to annals of time. Never to recover. It's a tough world.

C

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Rob Spiegel   11/30/2012 9:50:51 AM
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Good points, Cabe. The displacement of jobs can have a dreary effect. And you're right that even intellectual jobs can be less than exciting. Sometimes I think that writing is manual labor of the mind.

jmiller
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Re: Ambivalent Response
jmiller   11/30/2012 10:54:50 PM
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In a lot of ways so many farming jobs have already been lost due to the size of the machinery and the automation of different tasks.  It would be interesting to see how many jobs have already been lost due to technology.  At the same time, this technology is increasing the amount of food being grown with less people and less energy.

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Rob Spiegel   12/3/2012 1:47:49 PM
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I agree, Jmiller. On corporate farms, a good deal of jobs have been displaced. And it's probably just as well. They were not great jobs for health or for satisfaction.

ttemple
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Re: Ambivalent Response
ttemple   12/7/2012 8:26:15 AM
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Rob, I presume from your opinion of farm jobs that you have never even been near a farm.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Cabe Atwell   12/7/2012 6:03:20 PM
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TTemple,

Look at it from the perspective of any technological advancement. Automatic elevators replace the operators, auto-printing presses replace line workers, robots take over the auto industry. All those displaced workers moved elsewhere. Educated themselves to find a new place to fit.

Don't you think that further automation of farming may do the same?

C

ttemple
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Re: Ambivalent Response
ttemple   12/9/2012 10:49:22 PM
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Cabe,

I am suggesting that at some point we think about the effects of displacing everyone under the assumption that they can simply "Educuate themselves to find a new place to fit".

People fall within a bell curve.  I am attempting to make the point that indiscriminately displacing low skilled jobs by automating them out of existence, and presuming that those who are well suited to doing those jobs can shove themselves to a different place in the bell curve, might be a flawed strategy.  The bell curve may have some elasticity, but we will only be able to push it so far.

 

jmiller
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Re: Ambivalent Response
jmiller   12/31/2012 11:08:34 AM
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I think one question to pose is, "Do we as a society choose to keep some low level jobs that don't require as much education available for a certain part of society?  I mean we all can't be rocket scientists.  I think the world needs ditch diggers too."

Cabe Atwell
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Roll in the robots!
Cabe Atwell   1/3/2013 5:55:31 PM
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There will always be people who don't want to think much while working. Some just want to use their bodies. I think there is some merit to that idea. At periodic points in my career, I think I would rather have a manual labor job. Instead of figuring out a whole electrical design, I would just sweep a floor, pound a nail, saw wood, operate a machine.

As we educate ourselves and the dominating culture shows the lifestyle of the entertainment business, few people will opt for manual labor. That is, unless it pays well. If I am not mistaken, farming does not. So, roll in the robots!

C

Rob Spiegel
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Re: Ambivalent Response
Rob Spiegel   12/12/2012 5:43:38 PM
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Ttemple, there were farms in my family -- as with most of our families going back a couple generations. One thing I was very aware of is that my family members who owned farms also took jobs in town. I've also had friends who were migrant farm workers. And those are very difficult jobs.

jmiller
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Re: Ambivalent Response
jmiller   12/31/2012 10:57:08 AM
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I don't know if I agree with that.  A lot of farmers were satisfied with working hard with their hands for a decent living.  Unfortunately, a lot of those jobs are not there anymore.  I don't know if it's fair to expect everyone to become a rocket scientist.  I think we should have some jobs available for people who want to work hard and not necessarily go to college.

Droid
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Size & Scale
Droid   11/29/2012 9:54:59 AM
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I live in rural east central MN among many "smaller" , "family" farming operations.  Many people don't realize the level of technology that even the smaller operations utilize.  Everything is equipped with sensors and GPS technology. 

The concept machines in the slideshow, although interesting, appear to be toys compared to what most farmers use.  The more likely scenario is autonomy incorporated into existing style machines to avoid loss of scale.

jmiller
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Re: Size & Scale
jmiller   11/30/2012 10:49:34 PM
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I agree most likely the next steps will be to incorporate current machines with newer technlogies.  Right now we see a lot of GPS and mapping of yields and soils types and some use of automation to cntrol vehicles.  I don't think it will be long before the tractors will drive themselves.

The Gray Lion
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Iron
Sustainable Agricultural Robotics
The Gray Lion   11/29/2012 11:02:25 AM
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For truely sustainable agriculture to go main stream, robotics are necessary.  The small and multi use systems as described in this article are coming much closer to the picture of what will be needed.. given the right data knowledge base, the system of multi robots with multi tools can begin to change the methodoclogy from mono crops to multi crops and also move from chemical remediations to physical remediation on both weeds when needed to be removed to insects and advising farmers when there is an issue.. this large data knowledge base can also help farmers with or without sustainable agriculural machines.  The knowledge base can be designed for each area of the world or countries with each plant types and insect types and weather taken into consideration.. Also agricultural methodolgies can be part of the knowledge base educating farmers on how to do sustainable agriculture.  Picture small bots sensing a bug.. identifiying it or quering the master farmer data base or the farmer and determing if it is a good bug or bad.. if bad given instructions to eliminate and the bot going and vacuming up the bug and creating more compost.. :D  and sending more info to a larger network to be aware of a bug invasion potential into the area.. thanks for the article.. it is fun to see this progress.

Tim
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Picker robot
Tim   11/29/2012 12:58:58 PM
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The picker robot is a neat item. I would be interested in the approximate cost of such a robot. Low bushy crops like strawberries and pumpkins are difficult to harvest on a large scale. It requires human dexterity to adequately harvest these crops. It would be great to just let a robot loose on the field and wait a few hours to have your crop.

robatnorcross
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Re: Picker robot
robatnorcross   11/29/2012 4:48:37 PM
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I'd really like to see how well it works when covered in mud. Seems to me that the humans (won't mention any particular nationality) will still be needed to go find the mud caked tiny robots that are stuck in the goo out in the fields and deliver them to "technicians" to repair.

Jack Rupert, PE
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Re: Picker robot
Jack Rupert, PE   11/29/2012 9:41:58 PM
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The size of these do present the question of reliablity in various conditions.  This is especially true since crops need to be picked in a relatively short time period.  If they are "pickable" (I hesitate to use the word "ripe" since the ripening might take place out of the field), they need to be picked right way rather than waiting for the field to firm up.

jmiller
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Re: Picker robot
jmiller   11/30/2012 10:52:08 PM
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You do make a good point.  Often areas of a crop might be pickable while others are not.   And it will take time to develop a way for the robots to differentiate from ready fruit to non ready fruit.

ScotCan
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Re: Picker robot
ScotCan   12/12/2012 12:39:42 PM
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This was addressed in Create the Future using robotic and HMI to farm within monolithic domes 

Tim
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Re: Picker robot
Tim   11/30/2012 7:14:03 AM
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Good point about the mud. The robots do not seem to be as reliable as a John Deere combine. Hopeefully they utilize sealed bearings and cylinders.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Picker robot
Cabe Atwell   11/30/2012 4:15:53 PM
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Thought is the movie The Matrix comes to mind with robotic farming. The bots toiled in fields of their "human-batteries." Upscale the bots, and they will do just that, but with soy-beans.. not the human race.

C

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Picker robot
Ann R. Thryft   12/6/2012 12:23:23 PM
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I don't agree about the mud "problem": it's a relative non-issue. Lots of rugged bots exist--mostly military or search & rescue types--that can deal with all kinds of terrain, including mud. Also, robotized tractors and other large farming-related vehicles have been around for some time.

bobjengr
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FUTURE FARMING
bobjengr   12/5/2012 6:04:02 PM
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Fascinating post Cabe.  This article is very timely for me because I have just been asked to consider a project that will (hopefully) mechanize the planting of Miscanthus X-- 10,000 acres.  Miscanthus is a plant that is used to generate biofuel so food-products can still be used for consumption.  I know we are some years away from robotic planting, at least on the scale I need right now, but your article does provide very interesting possibilities.  Again, many thanks for the post.

 

ttemple
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the solution is part of the problem
ttemple   12/7/2012 8:23:58 AM
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There are a couple of ways of looking at machinery displacing people on farms.  We have a severe shortage of low skill level jobs in this country.  The kind of labor that the machines displace is labor that most anybody could be trained to do.  More machinery equals more people sitting in front of their tv's, on their government cell phones, collecting their government checks.

About 30 years ago my uncle, who was not very educated, argued that the government should limit tractors to 60HP, so that more people would be required to maintain the food supply.  I have never fogotten that conversation, and I believe that when you ponder it for a while, he was probably on to something.  At some point you have to decide just how many people's jobs you want to displace if you don't have anything else for them to do.

100 years ago, people had to work much harder just to keep food in front of their faces.  They didn't have all the idle time and toys that we have today, but they did have jobs to go to.

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