Robohub's focus series on agricultural robotics either is nearing or has arrived at completion, however the work of applying robotics to agriculture has barely begun. My own contribution to that series turns on the idea that robotics is a fundamental, revolutionary development, with the potential to transform everything it touches, and, by implication, that roboticists should embrace that potential and approach their work as an opportunity to change the world for the better, both generally and in the context of agriculture.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Sunday, November 03, 2013
Realizing that I really should go to the trouble of at least diagraming what I am about to describe, as I have in the past I will wince and proceed, preferring to get the idea out rather than wait on a diagram that I may never get around to creating. As a stop-gap, I will end with links to several relevant Wikipedia articles that do include diagrams and/or images.In the original post on this topic, I only described the air flow, without going into detail about filtration and drying of the air used. I intend to amend those omissions here. Since the needed volumetric supply rate of air is fairly small, significant compression (enough to ensure no condensation on the optical elements) should not represent an onerous power requirement. However, even simple impeller turbines can be worn by dust particles, and filters last longer if coarse material is removed before reaching them, so the first stage should be a cyclonic separator. As the input to the compressor, a slight vacuum will be pulled on the air as it passes through this first stage. If that air is at or very near dew point, condensation may occur inside the separator. (If condensation does occur, most of the heat removed from the condensing water vapor will remain with the air, raising its dew point.) Packing the center of the separator with a downward pointing cone of stainless steel wool will provide that condensation with a surface to adhere to and wick down, collecting in drops at the point of the cone. The moist stainless steel wool will also help remove finer dust particles that would otherwise pass through the cyclonic separator. (The finer the stainless steel wool, the more effective it is likely to be, but also the more likely that it will need an occasional back-flush with steam.) Next comes the compressor. This should be a very small impeller turning very fast, to achieve significant compression with a low rate of flow. The chamber enclosing the impeller may also act as a second-stage cyclonic separator. Any condensation remaining in the air flowing into the compressor should be flung against the outer wall of that enclosing chamber or reevaporated instantly. Following the compressor is a HEPA filter, to remove any remaining dust. The clean air from the HEPA filter is then directed into a box containing the optics (lenses and image sensors). That box will need to be strong enough to withstand mild pressurization, and should be sealed except as described below, although the pressurization will help ensure that any imperfections in the seal don't result in dust infiltration. Rather than exposing the optics directly to the outside air, they should be protected behind a lens cover in the form of a wafer of flat, very clear glass or crystal. That wafer should be etched on its outer edge with widely-spaced grooves, perpendicular to the flat sides, to serve as air channels, and on it its outward-facing side with groves which begin at the groves in the edge, tapering to nothing as they spiral toward the center at a shallow angle. By mounting such a wafer in such a way that air passing out through the groves around the outer edge is forced to turn and flow in an inward spiral across the face of the glass, an air-flow, reminiscent of that in a hurricane, will be set up, with filtered air spiraling inward next to the lens cover, pushing out a bit, and then spiraling back outward a short distance in front of the lens cover, keeping the lens cover itself free of dust and small droplets in the ambient air. Now for the promised Wikipedia links…
Friday, October 18, 2013
Wednesday, October 02, 2013
Saturday, September 14, 2013
Whenever one recognizes unrealized potential in some new development, there is a temptation to attempt to bring it into being by overselling it, glossing over the difficulties of making that potential real and promising greater benefit and less collateral damage than is actually likely to result.
This is an even more poignant issue in robotics than in other fields, as robots have long been a favorite, abundant source of material for authors and screenwriters, who invest them with whatever qualities and capabilities serve their purposes, frequently without giving serious thought to the engineering effort which would be required to produce these attributes. Consequently, the general public is somewhat confused about and unimpressed by the current state of the art.
Since starting this blog, just over seven years ago, I've tried to make it clear that I've been talking about technology that is clearly within reach but, for the most part, not yet in existence. Over that seven years there has been significant progress, in the technology, and even more so in my own cognizance of the current state of that technology and of ongoing research and development work.
Even so, I still find myself faced with the conundrum that by pointing with such certainty to a potential that can only be fully realized through an iterative development process founded on intensive collaboration between two groups of people who as yet hardly even talk to each other (roboticists and horticulturists) I undermine my own credibility and that of the vision I strive to share.
Nevertheless I am certain, more certain that ever, that machines capable of performing the full range of gardening tasks autonomously can be developed, and that a combination of automated factories and economies of scale can make them competitively affordable, as compared with the combined costs of continuing practices which are currently so dominant as to seem anointed and unassailable.
Above all I am certain that this approach to crop production and land management can be the essential ingredient enabling solutions to a whole set of intractable problems, from malnutrition and (lack of) food security to rural poverty to dwindling biological diversity to spreading deserts to contamination of air, streams, and oceans.
It is unfortunate that many of those who might read this would see it as hype, for it is nothing of the sort. It is simply the recognition of a crucial potential inherent in the development of robotics, and the attempt to infect others with that recognition, rendered imperative by the gravity of its implications.
Therefore I persevere.
Thursday, August 22, 2013
Perhaps its similarity to the word "husband" has contributed to its decline, as economics has forced women into the workforce in droves, including many who would have been happier as homemakers, and marriages have been recast as partnerships between undifferentiated equals.
Whatever you may think of all that, in the context of land management, there is no other English word which is quite so perfectly nuanced as "husbandry", since it implies as much attention to the care and conservation of resources as to their production and use.
Friday, August 09, 2013
I am reasonably confident that something resembling my vision for the application of robotics to agriculture will eventually happen, so why do I even bother trying to call attention to it?
The question isn't whether it will happen, but how soon and, more importantly, how much further damage will be done before it does finally happen?
How soon is largely a function of resources, both public and private, for R&D. Public funding is somewhat problematic at the moment, of course, with the government in danger of being shut down through the inept stubbornness of certain congress-critters. Assuming that doesn't happen there may be a little money available here and there, through ongoing programs, but we're not talking about a determined effort such as that which put men on the moon. Appropriate as it might be, that sort of approach just isn't in the cards for now.
On the other hand, private money could be more than enough to get things moving. No doubt investors are a little gun shy, given the legal battles still underway in the smartphone industry, and leery of tying up their money in the hope of a payoff that might not come for a decade, maybe even two. The first concern could be eased somewhat by the establishment of a FRAND-based IP consortium. The worry over time-to-payoff could be addressed by identifying development milestones that would be marketable in specific circumstances, as Harvest Automation has done, beginning to generate a revenue stream while still deeply engaged in development.
The question of additional damage is both more looming and more difficult to wrap one's mind around. The variety and scale of environmental insults being perpetrated by conventional agriculture are staggering, and yet this is business as usual. Even if every element of a viable alternative were available today, it would still take time to convince many farmers of the need to change, time to replace equipment, and time to restore soil fertility. Meanwhile those with the most to lose, the chemical companies whose product portfolios read like a litany of sins, are likely to fight change tooth and nail, clinging to their poisonous, monopolistic business models as long as they possibly can.
So there is some cause for worry that by the time everyone is convinced of the need for change, there'll be precious little left to save, and we'll find ourselves surviving on tube-grown GM-algae and vat-grown meat, while weeds that have developed resistance to all of our poisons take over field after field from crops with too little remaining genetic diversity to cope with climate change in addition to everything else being thrown at them.
We need to make use of the best practices we can manage right now, given the small percentage of people engaged in agricultural production and type of equipment currently in their hands, and bring even better practices to bear as willing hands and robotic technologies make them possible in urban environments and on an agricultural scale. That is the path to saving all that can still be saved.