Robots have revolutionized the factory. What about the field?
Over the past century, agriculture has seen an explosion in productivity, thanks to things like mechanization, synthetic fertilizers, selective breeding, and, of course, pesticides -- lots of it.
But it remains to be seen what role robots will play in working the fields. Automation was possible in factories because tasks were repetitive and the environment well-defined. A robot arm welding a car chassis does the exact same job over and over. When it comes to crops, though, everything changes: the environment is unstructured and tasks -- like picking a fruit -- have to be constantly readjusted.
It's a huge challenge, but some companies are up to the task. Take Vision Robotics, for example. It is using advanced vision and localization techniques to develop systems like its autonomous grape-vine pruner.
We've written about them before; now they've added the impressive (and bucolic) video above, which is a demonstration the company gave to the grape and wine industry. The company, based in San Diego, Calif., developed a vision system that uses stereoscopic cameras to create a virtual 3D image of the grape vines. Articulated cutting arms do the trimming at an exact angle and location.
From what I understand their goal is to have a tractor equipped with the articulated robotic arms. Mobility is a priority, and the machines must be able to access most of the areas of the tree being cut. The tractor might be driven by a person, but everything else would be controlled by an on-board computer.
Another promising application is fruit picking. Again a robot would distinguish between fruit and leaves by using vision. A camera mounted on the robotic arm detects colors and compares it reference data in its memory. A match means the fruit is picked.
Over the next few decades we could expect a time when robots will work tirelessly on our fields. Just like they do in our factories.