In the twenty-first century, the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. ~Nicolas Tesla
I’ve posted a lot about food. We all need food to survive, but what we eat and how we process food has serious implications for global warming. We really should decrease consumption of beef and dairy (#19: Our Carbon Hoofprint) and move toward lab-grown meat (#2: Food for Thought). Would it be better for the planet if we all became vegetarians? Perhaps, but what about the back-breaking human labor that is needed to harvest our grains, fruits, and veggies? How about using robots to do that punishing work instead?
Won’t that put all those field workers out of work? Certainly not in the face of the current shortage of farm workers. Also, when was the last time you saw workers with scythes cutting down wheat? They were replaced by combine harvesters in the 19th century. At best, agricultural workers will be trained to guide and fix the robots. Robots are still pretty dumb. Those who are not provided new jobs could be paid via universal basic income, provided by taxing the robots — a prospect that is probably closer than you might think.
In this issue, I share stories about laser-shooting robots, robots wielding water-knives, and even robots with AI vision to weed our fields — all designed to help feed our growing population more efficiently without enslaving farm workers.
Your Apples May Soon be Picked by Laser-shooting Robots
Lasers and robots — sounds like something out of Star Wars. I never worked on a farm, but I was supposed to pick peaches off trees in our suburban yard. Instead, we grew an abundance of yellow jackets feeding off the overripe fruit on the ground.
The robot … developed by a company called Abundant Robotics, navigates the rows between apple trees using lidar, which paints the world with lasers, and images the fruits with machine vision. “In real time it’s recognizing apples,” says Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant. “If they’re ripe, then the computer system sequences them for the robotic arm to pick.” Or maybe not so much pick as slurp — the arm uses a vacuum tube to suck the delicate fruit off the plant.
Good News: As amazing as this apple-sucking robot is, there are even more examples of robots being used today in the more controlled greenhouse environment of hydroponic farming.
Robots Wielding Water Knives are the Future of Farming
Robots are not always replacing jobs that humans don’t want to do, sometimes they can do jobs that humans can’t do. With tons of data, robotics combined with artificial intelligence (AI) are transforming agriculture.
[W]orkers here didn’t lose their jobs to a robot — they work in tandem with one. And just as well, because California farms are facing a serious labor shortage of perhaps 20 percent. Increasingly sophisticated robots have to pick up the slack, here and around the world. Because if humanity expects to feed its booming population off a static amount of land, it’s going to need help.
Good News: Fortunately, robotic farming is coming to the rescue as fewer immigrant workers are arriving, and our own workforce is aging.
Automated Weeders Have Arrived in Vegetable Fields
Do you hate weeding your home garden as much as I do? Weeding is much better than herbicides, but can you imagine the challenge of weeding on a commercial scale? Bring in the robots!
Tanimura & Antle was one of the first adopters of an automated weeding machine that uses vision engineering and mechanical knives to weed and clean fields. The automated weeder is mounted on the back of a standard tractor and uses halogen lamps, infrared cameras, and high-powered computers to identify invasive weeds and ultimately makes decisions on what weeds to kill and what crops to save.
Good News: Automated weeding is happening today on large commercial farms. Fortunately, robotic weeders are a boon to organic farmers and are positioned to replace glyphosate and other herbicides — great news!
These “ag-tech” advances are revolutionizing planting, growing, harvesting, and even weeding. I’m optimistic that technology will continue to help increase the food supply, changing forever what it means to be a farm worker. Now if they can only make a Roomba Weeder for my garden!