Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

James Gosling of Liquid Robotics at CMU

James Gosling, famed software developer who has spent his last several years working at Liquid Robotics, was recently the featured speaker at a CMU Robotics Institute seminar. My purpose here is not to discuss that talk as a whole, but to focus in on particular issues he discussed which are more generally applicable.

At 52:10, he begins the discussion of fault management, describing, among other things, how LR relies heavily upon features of Java that support continuous operation in the face of problems that would cause software to stop abruptly in other environments.

At 54:30, he discusses communication modes and data prioritization, which is an issue for LR because real-time transmission can cost them as much as $1/kilobyte, for a data rate of ~50 baud.

At 57:46, he briefly discusses security issues, which he says he could have talked about at much greater length.

At 58:43, he mentions Java's write once run anywhere advantage, and how LR makes good use of it in writing and debugging their software.

At 1:05:17, he responds to a comment from the audience regarding inclusion of a basic feature, camera panning, the consequences of various approaches to crafting hardware to support it, and how LR has worked around the problem.

At 1:07:59 he launches into the topic of parts availability, or lack thereof, noting that chips LR would like to acquire are only available as part of circuit boards, or in large lots, which constrains their choices in hardware design.

This last item, the lack of availability of what are, in a volume context, standard parts, is my main motivation for going to the trouble of posting this. It holds back not only the development of robotics, but electronics startups of all sorts, and, to a lesser extent, hobbyists (because in most cases those complete boards are what they need).

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Why robots, revisited

The list of problems is uncomfortably long, and all too familiar...

  • interruption of cycling of biological materials back to land
  • routine tillage accelerating loss of soil carbon
  • soil loss to wind and water
  • reduced ability of remaining soil to absorb and retain water
  • rapid runoff and increased flooding downstream
  • diminished soil fertility and overuse of fertilizers
  • silting and nutrient loading of streams and estuaries
  • overuse of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides
  • loss of diversity of native flora and fauna
  • loss of diversity in crop species
  • dietary diversity only maintained by long-distance shipping
  • pressure to produce more irrespective of long-term consequences

Most of these problems are addressable by means of better practices...

  • cover crops and mulching
  • crop rotation, polyculture, and perennials
  • recycling of biological materials back to the land
  • maintenance and continual improvement of local crop varieties
  • biological pest controls (free-range chickens, parasitic wasps, etc.)
  • biological and mechanical weed controls
  • minimal cultivation, and that on the contour
  • controlling runoff near the source with terraces and small dams
  • recovering silt from above dams and returning it to the land
  • scaling livestock operations to what available land can provide and absorb
  • hedges, shelter belts, and native-flora waterways
  • providing food and habitat for wildlife

The problem with this set of practices is that, for the most part, they require more attention to detail and don't scale as easily as conventional practice, so they are hard to justify in terms of the farmer's bottom line.

Automation in the form of small robots, operating without constant supervision, and capable of going about farming the right way, could close that gap.

Unfortunately, for most of us, this is a collection of technologies that largely have yet to be created.

On the other hand, the sooner we make it a priority, the sooner it will happen, and the sooner we can get on with the job of healing the planet.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

stemming the slide of soil degradation

While, in the long run, we should seek to optimize agricultural practice for the improvement of soil health, along with other considerations, in the near term we should be glad for any improvement at all, since the default to be expected from ‘modern’ agriculture is some degree of lost fertility with each passing season.

Traditional practices, like crop rotations including deep-rooted plants like clover, alfalfa, and buckwheat, and like allowing livestock into fields after harvest to browse on the debris left behind, can be enough to tip the scale from degradation to marginal improvement, and can be applied now, without any change in the machinery in use.

We should do what is a matter of differing management choices now, while continuing to work on the technology that will eventually make radically improved techniques possible.

Friday, December 20, 2013

FRE2014 to be held in conjunction with DLG Field Days

Hosted at least in part by the University of Hohenheim, the 2014 Field Robot Event will take place in conjunction with DLG Field Days (brochure, fact sheet), June 17-19, in Strenzfeld, just outside of Bernburg, Germany.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

regarding the transformational application of robotics to agriculture

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.