The farming robots are coming

Saturday, June 23rd, 2007

The farming robots are coming, and it’s about damn time. For too long have humans unnecessarily devoted themselves to manual labor. Any task that can be done just as well by a robot, should be done by a robot, to go free up that human to do something only a human can do. I reject the argument that robots should not replace human labor just so we can keep people employed — inefficiency is bad for inefficiency’s sake.

But back to the linked article. Growers in California have invested large amounts of money in research into robotic fruit pickers: think oranges, grapes, apples; anything, really. The reason is that migrant workers have been so spotty of late (whether they’ve been having troubles getting across the border, who knows) that many farms had just had all of their fruit rot away on the vine/tree because nobody was there to pick it. Clearly, robots owned by the farm could do a much better job. The technology they’re using is really complex, in case you had any lingering doubts about these being true robots rather than mere mechanical harvesters:

The two robots would work as a team: one an eagle-eyed scout, the other a metallic octopus with a gentle touch. The first robot will scan the tree and build a 3-D map of the location and size of each orange, calculating the best order in which to pick them. It sends that information to the second robot, a harvester that will pick the tree clean, following a planned sequence that keeps its eight long arms from bumping into each other.

The Vision Robotics engineers are currently building the scout. They expect to have a prototype ready next year, with the harvester to follow two or three years later. Baskin says he doesn’t expect the mechanical systems to pose any serious problems. The hard work is writing the software. After the scout robot makes a 3-D map of the tree, it has to evaluate each piece of fruit. What size is the orange? What color is it? Does it have black spots on it? “It’s a question of gathering the information, and then judging whether it meets the parameters that are equal to a good orange,” Baskin says.

3D maps of fruit trees? Calculating optimal routes for most efficient picking of fruit? Freaking awesome, that’s what that is.