Vision Robotics, down on the farm
I found out just recently about Vision Robotics, a company in California with a pretty broad range of products (or eventual products), but all of them are based on computer vision and SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) navigation technology.
Their agricultural products look pretty interesting; they're looking at developing a robot that can go through an orchard and pick ripe oranges off of trees, as well as one that can prune grape vines. The concept appears to be that one robot will scan the trees in each orchard row with its vision system, mapping out where each fruit is, while a second robot (I can't tell from the renderings if it's attached to the first one or not -- though they do like like two discrete modules) with the picking arms follows it and picks the fruit it has identified. I have to say, if anyone else is familiar with the Boomers from the anime Bubblegum Crisis, this thing looks terrifying.
I found out about Vision Robotics through a student at Olin College (my alma mater), where the company is sponsoring a senior project to develop an end-effector that can gently grasp and pick an orange off a tree without breaking the skin. The student also compared apples to oranges, pointing out that oranges contrast with the tree, while apples tend to blend in with the green leaves, making oranges an easier target for a vision system. Still, Vision Robotics does appear to be designing an apple picker as well.
On the home robots side, they've got patents on a vacuuming and mopping robot. Even though iRobot beat them to the punch on the concepts, Vision Robotics patented a design that uses a remote cleaning head that is much smaller and more mobile than the Roomba body; a module carrying power and other large, heavy components can stay out of the way while the connected cleaning head does its work. Unlike the Roomba, this robot (as conceived) also maps the room before vacuuming.
They also list an elder care "personal service" robot, though as with all of these elder care concepts developed in the US and Japan, their feasibility remains to be seen. The floor cleaning model is much better proven.
For anyone interested in moving to San Diego (or anyone already there), they list an open development position on their Careers page (linked at the bottom of their site).
Image source: www.visionrobotics.com