Robots Able to Pick Peppers, Test Soil, and Prune Plants Aim To Replace Farm Workers

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At the turn of the last century, nearly half of the American workforce was dedicated to agriculture. Industrial inventions like the steel plow had made farming easier, but it was still grueling labor performed by men, women, and work animals.

The invention of the combustion engine changed all that. The mechanization of farm labor drove massive productivity gains, and today, agricultural workers make up just over 2% of the workforce.

Now, another revolution is underway—the outright automation of farming. Farm robots are increasingly capable of autonomously performing complex tasks including plowing, plant and soil surveillance, and even the harvesting of fruit and vegetables.

Thanks to a combination of cheap sensors and computer vision, machines are capable of more freely navigating and performing other complex tasks. The tech uses a combination of infrared sensors and stereoscopic cameras to drive autonomous telepresence robots in hospitals and allow advanced industrial bots to recognize, differentiate, and pick irregular shapes like haphazardly stacked boxes. (Computer vision is also behind Google’s Project Tango 3D-seeing smartphone and tablet.)

Clearly, these skills are also useful on the farm where many jobs have historically been beyond the average robot. Picking an apple, for example, requires visually examining an object that varies in shape and may be hidden in a chaotic canopy of leaves. Is it ripe? Workers must check for color and size.

Whereas in the past, robots were ill-suited for such work—that is less the case now. Computer vision, for example, is at the heart of the WP5 robotic pepper picker.

WP5 picks peppers in a greenhouse using a robotic arm equipped with a rubber gripper, two cameras, and a pair of clippers. The arm is attached to a moving apparatus that includes lighting, a compressor for the pneumatics, control electronics, sensors, and a computer to drive it all. The system was tested in April of this year in a commercial greenhouse and shown capable of autonomously harvesting ripe fruit.

You might notice the robot is still pretty deliberate. The robot’s speed was slowed by researchers to avoid damage to the system and test its central functionality. But picking speed is ultimately the key to making the robot economical. Researchers estimate that a six second pick will be profitable when one robot costs less than €195,000 (presumably they’re not there yet) and lasts five years.

Other needed improvements for more general farm use (outside controlled greenhouse environment) might include a more rugged platform for navigation. And while the rubber gripper appears soft enough to mold to the pepper (avoiding pressure points)—is it gentle enough for a ripe tomato?

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While it’s a great new demonstration, WP5 is hardly new or alone in the field of farm automation.

The Autonomous Tractor Company, for example, is working to convince farmers they need self-driving tractors. Instead of GPS, it works on a local grid of ground-based transponders, radar, and a little preliminary machine learning (the farmer drives it around the perimeter). The technology is here—though, farmers have been slow to embrace it (in part because it is still fairly costly).

Then there’s the Christophe Millot’s wine-bot, Wall-Ye. For $32,000, the robot autonomously trundles through vineyards pruning vines, testing soil, and keeping an eye on plant health. And Harvest Automation offers a bot that rolls around plant nurseries moving potted plants. All the nursery employees need to do is input the plant locations on a touchscreen. The robot takes care of the rest.

Drones offer automated aerial solutions for farmers with large plots of land in need of monitoring. On autopilot from take-off to landing, these airborne bots image land to check up on irrigation problems, soil variation, pest and fungal issues, and plant health. Robots allow this to be done more consistently, cheaper, and at higher resolution than satellite imagery and cheaper than imaging by aircraft.

Robots are best suited to tasks that are monotonous, dangerous, and repetitive. Long ago, they invaded the factory floor—it’s high time they made a foray into farm work.

Image Credit: CROPS

Discussion — 21 Responses

  • Emmet Cole July 14, 2014 on 1:57 pm

    Not sure how many workers they will be replacing.. if anything there is a shortage of agricultural labour (which means a LOT of food never leaves the farm and is wasted).

    Plus, agricultural work is very dangerous (most dangerous profession in the UK, also one of the most dangerous in the U.S.), farm labouring is poorly paid, and the suicide rate for farmers from India to the U.S. is shocking.

    Robots can help with all of these problems.

    • Facebook - richard.r.tryon Emmet Cole July 14, 2014 on 5:44 pm

      Your generalities are not helpful. Picking cherry tomatoes grown organically from a chair as the plants rotate past your seat is hard to compare with say milking a cow or chasing a bull out of the pasture. Can you be more specific?

    • Tyrone Tyrone Emmet Cole July 14, 2014 on 9:00 pm

      Which makes this is a good thing.

      • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei Tyrone Tyrone July 15, 2014 on 9:33 am

        Sure it does!!!
        If by replacing jobs, increasing unemployment and poverty and increasing the economical problems our world faces is a good thing, then yes! Replace the workers first, then those in service industries, then security and medical staff, drivers, teachers, chemists, biologists, geneticists…why – let’s replace everything with AI and get rid of the humans…:D

        A bit over dramatic I know – but that’s where this path is headed…

        And no, you’re not an exception to being replaced – it’s not that you’ll be “converted”…because a conversion is still obsolete…

        • Greendogo Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei July 17, 2014 on 7:34 am

          Those people will work somewhere else. They have to earn a living somehow right? They don’t just stop working if they lose their jobs.

          Further, the idea that we will all be replaced by AI and have nowhere to work doesn’t take that fact (that people have to work to make a living) into account. If an entire community is displaced by robotics and artificial intelligence, then they will be forced to create their own market ecosystem.

          Many people try to force all people into the same market ecosystem, somehow labeling people who are underpaid or not receiving the same economic opportunities as exploited. However, they are part of a different economic strata, and their ecosystem hasn’t accumulated enough capital yet to raise itself to the level of the accusers’.

          For example, proponents of minimum wages are often disgusted/affronted/etc by low wages some people earn and so seek to raise those wages, by law, out of some moral rationality. However, this will only cause the forced unemployment of those workers whose labor is not valued at or above the new minimum wage level. To show a more direct consequence, take the subject matter of the article as an example. The mass replacement of agricultural labor with robots is inevitable, but it is most certainly accelerated by artificially constrained labor markets via minimum wage laws. Those restrictions curtail lower wages which the job almost certainly demands, and decreases the labor pool to only the top candidates for the jobs (leaving out slower workers who might agree to match their wages to their lower levels of productivity).

          If you want to allow people to live in a world overrun with virtually free robotic labor, you’ll need to allow humans to agree to their own wages and lift labor restrictions so they can create their own labor markets, naturally and without being impeded by useless and damaging regulation.

          • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei Greendogo July 21, 2014 on 1:43 am

            That definitely makes a lot of sense – assuming they have the drive, will and necessary opportunities to create a new market for themselves…

            The problem is – most of them don’t have the logistics, finances or education to start their own market niches…

            Then again – we have people with degrees in Science and Finance and Economics that are struggling to find work…

            But I get what you’re saying and that is something I haven’t considered as a factor – thank you :)

          • Chris F Greendogo September 24, 2014 on 1:11 pm

            Sounds like you’re arguing for pro-human protectionism in your last para – special laws that allow humans to compete with a virtually free robot workforce. How exactly does that tally with your idea of “lifting labor regulations” ?

    • Chris F Emmet Cole September 24, 2014 on 1:17 pm

      Cleaning a house is a dirty job. Don’t worry, robots can help with that problem !
      Being a security guard is a boring job. Don’t worry, robots can help with that problem !
      Driving a taxi is dangerous job. Don’t worry, robots can help with that problem !
      Having to work to feed my family can be stressful. Don’t worry, robots can help with that problem !

  • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei July 15, 2014 on 9:39 am

    I do so LOVE technology and the advancements thereof…

    I’m just not sure I agree that it should be used to replace people…

    It’s meant to benefit and help us…not make us feel less than the fragile carbon-based forms we already are…but hey – it’s not like the guys with the cash would care much anyway – so long as they’re making the cash…after all – greed is the driving force behind most powerhouse industries…who cares if more than half the world falls deeper into poverty…we’re making money here folks!

    • Kyle Childers Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei July 15, 2014 on 1:17 pm

      Isaac Asimov touched on this in his book “I, Robot”. And the idea of machines replacing humans is certainly not a new one. Everything from self checkout lines at the grocery store to the ATM at the bank is just one more way in which humans are being replaced. One thing that you have to keep in mind however, is that “the guys with the cash” only have that cash because someone else bought what they’re selling. If most human jobs were replaced by robots and an adequate number of new jobs weren’t created to replace them, where are “the guys with the cash” getting said cash? If a robot farm machine replaces a farm hand, that farm hand isn’t going to be buying the corn that the robot harvests. Things happen much slower on a larger scale, but the basic principle remains: if no one is getting paid to work, there’s no one with the money to spend to support the companies that make the products, so automation becomes self-defeating in a business sense.

      • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei Kyle Childers July 16, 2014 on 2:53 pm

        You make a very valid point, thanks :)
        I guess, at the end of the day, someone will always be on top and someone will always be at the bottom…there is always a Leader and there are always Followers…

        Hope I get into a decent lab that becomes one of the leading labs…hahaha!!!

  • Nolux July 15, 2014 on 10:06 am

    Robbyn
    Tell me you’re not serious. Please read up on Abundance and Post Scarcity Economy. As traditional jobs become automated new wonderful careers and industries will emerge. Like they always have and will continue to only faster

    • Kyle Childers Nolux July 15, 2014 on 1:35 pm

      The idea of a post scarcity economy relies on an infinite or seemingly infinite supply of resources in order to exist. Everything from energy to raw materials to living space needs to be in such great supply as to render its market value to near zero. I’d say that at best we’re still 500 years away from that point. Robbyn’s opinion, while a bit dramatic, is still of valid contemplation since the transition from here to then won’t necessarily be a smooth one.

  • Nolux July 15, 2014 on 3:59 pm

    Kyle,
    I agree with you but the industrial revolution wasnt smooth either. We are continuously in transition and i don’t think this is any different. My first job was screwing lids on shampoo bottles as fast as i could on night shifts – definetly a robots job, it was horrible.
    Im a little more optimistic. I give it 30 years!
    Solar power should be sorted by then, among other key technologies.

    • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei Nolux July 16, 2014 on 2:48 pm

      OOOHHH!!!! Like those great solar power road hexagon plates…??? I wonder when they’ll start implementing that…oO…I also liked their ideas about carbon roads…

      Thanks Nolux – I’ll read up on that PSE now – in the meantime, I am optimistic that we’ll advance successfully into a New Era of Technology and Robotics in every day life…:) What I’m not too sure about is the transition there…

      In one world, the Singularity relies on eliminating the need for want by making everything available to everyone – in our current Monitory-based economy, that won’t happen…
      In the same sense – we’re a long way from successfully replacing human jobs with robots in order to save on a few working hands…

      Kyle put it quite nicely for me: “if no one is getting paid to work, there’s no one with the money to spend to support the companies that make the products, so automation becomes self-defeating in a business sense.” (Hope you don’t mind Kyle)

      And yes, I’ve been reading quite heavily on the ideals surrounding robotics over the next 50 years…specifically the jobs being created and the skills needed for new jobs from 2020 till at least 2050…like being a robotic psychologist…

      The issue there is – a farm worker doesn’t have the money to study robotics to get the qualifications to get a job after being replaced…and, as I said, it’s only starting with one sector at a time…don’t get me wrong – it’d be damned fantastic to never have to work – I can lase about gaming and traveling and spending good quality time with my wife and daughter – but that’s assuming when we eliminate human jobs we don’t expect them to still have money to survive…

      Maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture…that’s ok – Like I said, I’ll go read up on that PSE…but I’m not sure we’re at that stage in our transition just yet…

  • Nolux July 19, 2014 on 4:57 pm

    I have two young children and I’m excited to see the world they are going to live in as adults. I expect education in the future will be less dependent on investment of money and more on dedication of time. With the internet now readily available and a weak AI system coming on line now to help filter the ocean of data i hope future human roles will be as concept developers at a high level with AI as the incredibly efficient assistant / programmer / etc. philosophy and long range future planning will become very important for all education disciplines. Skilled tradespeople will train bots how to manipulate a hand tool and need to understand their trade deeply to convey it. I’m exited to see where this goes

    • Robbyn Luke-Wizard Mattei Nolux July 21, 2014 on 6:50 am

      That is indeed a great future to look forward to – discussing the potential of AI as a replacement of human workers is beginning to make a little more sense in some regards to what my current understanding of the situation is…and I do PRAY that my daughter grows up to love and respect Science and Technology…art is nice but…hahaha!!!

      I’m still concerned about the replacement of humans and what they will be done with – but I can see a lot of benefits regarding AI replacements…

      And yes – I do hope you’re right about future education…

    • Chris F Nolux September 24, 2014 on 1:09 pm

      “Skilled tradespeople will train bots how to manipulate a hand tool” – or more precisely, ONE skilled tradesperson will do this, immediately rendering that skill entirely worthless when it’s copied and disseminated to millions of machines around the world. He and his human colleagues will never work again. But hey, no worries, they can always retrain right ?

  • Alexander Roszko August 4, 2014 on 8:13 am

    Can it tell by looking at the plant or fruit if there is any disease or problem? I understand the need to automate mindless process however if we completely remove ourselves from the cultivation process we are going to take the love out that goes with hand picking a perfectly ripe piece of fruit or having the knowledge and wherewithal to spot a problem before it gets bigger. My motor vehicle mechanics teacher told me once that robots will never replace humans because you will never get one to wire a car door. It is just too complicated of a task and requires too much dexterity, concentration, and ability to modify the process in real time. Robots are cool, but I don’t want them flying around my head dropping things off, taking video/pictures, or just creating more general clutter and chaos in the world. I WILL take your drone down if it flies into my airspace. Drones were originally designed to get to remote places in the world that humans find extremely difficult to navigate. People don’t have jobs, are starving, and community ties us all together. Stop making more things that alienate us all from each other! Leave the robots to fight it out in the arena and let human hands pick my fruit thank you very much. Automate the irrigation fine. Make the whole setup streamlined groovy. Removing the human component further from our processes is just plain insanity. If we need to pay farmers more we should because they keep us alive. Putting them out of work doesn’t seem like the answer just because it is a dangerous profession with a high mortality rate. So is fishing for snow crabs. If anything we need to make it safer to work in agriculture and teach more people how to be more self-sustaining. If everyone planted and cultivated just a mere fraction of what they consume our overall carbon footprint as people living on this planet would be greatly reduced. Plants also bring joy, sustenance, and life to people as well as the oxygen we breathe. Go ahead and robotize everything people. What will you do when there is nothing left to automate?