We've been following Harvest Automation for a couple years now, since they've got a bunch of ex-iRobot people on board and they started out in stealth mode, which is a combination that's just inviting wild speculation. The plant has been out of the pot for a while, though, since Harvest Automation was revealed in 2008 to be primarily interested in, um, the automation of harvesting. Surprise?
In searching for ways to leverage Roomba-style (simple, specific, and reliable) technology in a new market, Harvest decided to give agriculture a try. Specifically, they've come up with a little robot whose only purpose in non-life is to pick up potted plants and move them from place to place. Potted plants are heavy and need to be moved frequently to optimize their spacing, and if you've got a big enough ornamental plant farm, that's a lot of people with a lot of sore backs.
The robots, not having backs, are much better suited for this, and using a variety of simple but accurate and reliable local sensors, they can either completely take over from humans, or work alongside them if the robots happen to be feeling magnanimous.
So, moving hundreds of pots from place to place over and over. Sounds simple enough, right? And from the perspective of a robot, it sort of is, relatively speaking. I mean, in some respects, this seems like it could be a slightly easier problem to solve than the whole robot vacuum thing, since the environment that these robots operate in is much more structured than a living room, without all the carpets and socks and electrical cords and wayward pets.
At somewhere between $25,000 and $50,000 each, the Harvest Automation robots are certainly not cheap. But if you can use them to replace humans, everything after the first year is gravy, with no health insurance, vacation days, or sleep. Currently, these bots are undergoing live beta testing in nurseries on the east coast, and as they gain a foothold, Harvest is potentially looking to expand into warehousing, construction, mining and manufacturing.