Very interesting project. Could definitely see some high utility for crops grown in particularly arid environments, where there are difficult worker conditions due to severe sun and heat. Yet those same conditions likely pose some challenges for the robot designers which have to account for all kinds of weather and possible environmental conditions that impede performance of the equipment.
As the article mentions, there are many new types of applications for robots. Many of these robots need to be more flexible and mobile than those used in manufacturing. With the advances in microelectronics that are driving these advances, this is becoming more economical. As with the factory automation wave, this should increase productivity.
I recall the crop-picking robot at Cornell University. I would say this is starting to look like a mini-trend: picking; grasping; identifying and harvesting of crops. Seems like a tailor-made application for robotic technology.
Beth, you've nailed the difficult part exactly - the environment in which the picker robots will work. Add in moisture and colder temperatures and you will see condensation inside the electrical enclosures.
I've seen basic autmation equipment for packaging corn cobs after a season of use. The machinery looks like it's seen 20 years of hard use, not just one season.
Making the robot pick accurately is only one aspect of the whole problem.
There are lots of people in the world who would gladly not only pick such "difficult" crops but tend them as well. They work cheaply, and are more skilful and more versatile than any robot can ever be. In a rational economy, if humans can do a job cheaper and better than a robot, humans would be hired to do it. Unfortunately in the US today, immigrant labor is a hot-button political issue, and it's become a huge burden to our agricultural industry. Polilticians and their constiuents insist that immigrant farm laborers are "stealing American jobs", and yet there are virtually no Americans who will do that sort of work for any price.
It would be a great irony if this political delusion drove us to build complicated, expensive, and unreliable robots to do a job that Mexicans or other foreigners could do much better and much more cheaply. As for the "sustainability" claim, what is more renewable and sustainable than human labor? There's also a bit of a social justice issue entangled with farm labor in that the laborers are usually from poor parts of the world and the money they send home from their jobs in rich countries helps equalize wealth worldwide.
A few countries have a problem with manual labor costing too much, whereas most countries have a problem with too many laborers and not enough work for them to do. Although designing robots is great fun, it makes more sense to let the people who need jobs go to the places where there labor is needed and do the work, than build robots to do that work, and leave the unemployed poor unemployed and poor.
With manufacturing robots, you can plan your environment and allow for errors. With (i.e. fruit harvesting) it is totally unpredictable and has no room for errors - the mother of all challenges - Good Luck!
Growing up on a vegetable farm, I would have loved to have this robot. Lol. The farm I grow up on was small compared to the full-time/professional farmers, as farming wasn't my Dad's profession but his love for farming.
Harvesting is just one part of the growing process. I'm wondering if many farmers would find the robots feasible.
I agree. Enviromental conditions can be quite harsh on both electronics and mechanics. One of the biggest challenges I see with the project is the robot's ability to survive enviromental and temperature changes. Automobiles is another good example of environmental obstacles the electronics and mechanics must overcome. I wish them well on their endeavors.
@mrdon,beth-- you're absolutely right. The agricultural sector is rife with hazardous conditions: petro-chemical, pesticides, dust, and varied ranges of temperature and precipitation. No wonder DARPA and NASA have an interest. These Earthbound robotics experiments may serve as an incubator for future Mars and deep space missions.
notarboca, You bring up an interesting point about the hazardous conditions on earth and how these agricultural robotics can be used as experimental testbeds for deep space exploration of distant planet's terrains. The Mars Rover Curiousity could have been a prime candidate for such testing on earth.
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