Will Robots Pick Your Grapes One Day?

Robots have revolutionized the factory. What about the field?

2 min read

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.

 

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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.

The Conversation (0)

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An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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