Close

It's been more than 2 years since we last reported on Massachusetts startup Harvest Automation. Now Joe Jones, Harvest's co-founder and CTO, has given an interview to the Robots Podcast to let us know what they've been up to.

Harvest is not your typical robotics start up. For a start, the experience of the founding and management team is unusual for any start up, and truly exceptional in the very young industry of autonomous robotics. Joe Jones alone has more than 24 years of robotics experience. As the first employee of iRobot, he invented the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, which to date has sold in more than 3 million units, and next to numerous research articles, Jones has also authored three books on robotics, and holds 15 patents. Also, unlike most start ups, the Harvest team had no particular product or application in mind when they first got together in 2007 under the initial name Q-Robotics. Instead, they went on an extended fact-finding mission about possible markets for a robot "one step beyond the Roomba".

What they've come up with is surprising. Agriculture may not seem like the easiest way to start: it's an outdoor application which means dealing with rain, mud, and temperature variations, environments are typically very unstructured, your typical user is unlikely to be highly skilled in software or automation, and tasks are normally accomplished using big machinery - all very different from the Roomba. However, Harvest has found a niche application which eliminates at least two of these challenges and which - they hope - can act as a stepping stone.

Harvest is targeting wholesale shrub farms as the one in the image above, which can have as many as 3 million containers of ornamental plants in 500 acres. Their robots lift and move the plants to perform tasks like spacing potted plants in grids - an operation that has to be repeated as plants grow, to efficiently use space at first, and then again to avoid that they grow into each other. The current human workers will essentially serve as supervisors to Harvest’s robots - they still give direction at a high level, but the machines are doing the heavy lifting. First trials have proven very successful, and the team is now working on a production version.

The Robots podcast interview with Joe Jones gives a deep insight into what it takes to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Jones explains more about the how's and why's of Harvest Automation, why moving potted plants is the next logical step after the Roomba and how they plan to tap into a potentially huge market for autonomous robots.

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less