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.


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/v/9GaGO9LIDEA&hl=en_US&fs=1&color1=0x234900&color2=0x4e9e00 expand=1]



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.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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