Friday, June 26, 2015

Robots could make GM less appealing

With the advent of techniques that make gene splicing relatively quick, simple, and cheap (as compared with the more arduous methods of the past), it's probable that the genie is out of the bottle and no effort of collective will ever be sufficient to get it back in. But that doesn't mean we have to accept genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food as inevitable.

I'm going to skip the whole GMO argument, at least for now, and cut straight to the chase.

Genetic modification in the laboratory is attractive because it can produce dramatic results for far less effort than the more tedious approach of breeding plants and animals in the field and on the farm. At least with regard to plants, robots can (in principle) change that, by automating the most tedious aspects of plant breeding, such as exerting some control over which plant receives pollen from which and labelling the seeds of each plant and keeping them separate from all the rest, as well as creating a record of the growth and vigor of each plant.

Taking over such tasks and thereby reducing the amount of work involved would make folding plant breeding into crop production possible, either as an experimental plot in every field or as a layer in the handling of crops in general. This, combined with techniques for sifting through large amounts of data, would vastly increase the number of plants involved in breeding programs, making the discovery of useful genetic recombinations or mutations far more likely.

By making conventional, phenotype-driven plant breeding both easier and more effective, robots could help shift the balance as compared with gene splicing in the laboratory, making it relatively less attractive.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Drought & desertification: Robots can help

A NYTimes article published April 2nd, Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S., leads off with an animated map supplied by the National Drought Mitigation Center, which shows the spread of drought conditions across the contiguous 48 states since late fall, 2014.

From that article: “Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 37 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of March 31, 2015.”

There are two major ways in which robots can help with the effects of climate change, whether permanent or cyclical, upon food production.

Most immediately, robots can operate indoor production facilities using artificial light to produce high value, quickly maturing crops requiring moist environments. To operate most efficiently, that artificial light would be predominantly red and blue, since green light is mostly reflected away by plants, which is why they appear green to us. This might prove a stressful environment for human workers, but robots won't care.

The other way in which robots can help is in dry fields under the hot sun. This can be as simple as reflective umbrellas, nets, or horizontal shutters that shade the ground from the mid-day sun, but uncover it again in the late afternoon to allow cooling radiation into the night sky. Robots could also maintain drip-irrigation systems or make daily rounds to inject water into the soil near root crowns.

In principle, they could also perform planting, weeding, pest control, pruning, harvesting, and deal with plant materials left behind after harvest, and do it all working a mixture of annuals between and around standing perennials, although much of the technology needed for such a scenario remains to be developed.

On the other hand, given that level of utility, much becomes possible that currently is not. The weight of machinery can be kept entirely off of productive soil, rendering it more capable of holding water. Mulch can be applied at any time. When expected precipitation fails to materialize, plants can be pruned to reduce their leaf area and the amount of water they require. Windbreaks can be installed surrounding relatively small patches of land, in a manner not conducive to working them using tractors and conventional implements, but affording much better protection from drying winds as well as providing a secondary crop of woody fiber and habitat for wildlife. If planted in low berms, those windbreaks would also help to keep what moisture there is in the fields and eliminate water erosion.

The benefits of such technology aren't limited to coping with drought, of course, but given that drought is likely to be a widespread, persistent problem, it can help to keep marginal land, which might otherwise turn to desert, in sustainable production, and perhaps even help to reclaim some land that has already been lost to desertification, beginning with the construction of windbreak fences (like snow fences) to accumulate wind-blown dust that will become the berms into which living windbreaks can be planted.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

relief and gratitude

When I began this blog, I was the only person I knew about with this vision. Over the intervening years, I have become aware of others with similar, compatible visions.

This has been a huge relief and both validating and liberating, to know that others have come to similar conclusions. My thanks to all of you!

Sunday, March 01, 2015

IEEE RAS Summer School on Agricultural Robotics (SSAR 2015)

Early last December, Frank Tobe published the article Agricultural technology making news on Robohub, in which he mentioned the IEEE RAS sponsored Summer School on Agricultural Robotics, to be held in February, 2015. Well, February has come and gone, and the inaugural IEEE RAS Summer School on Agricultural Robotics (SSAR 2015) took place as scheduled.

Organizers for this event included Dr. Robert Fitch (convener), Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR), Professor Salah Sukkarieh, ACFR Director of Research and Innovation, Marcel Bergerman of Carnegie Mellon's Field Robotics Center (FRC), Professor EJ (Eldert) van Henten of Wangenigen UR, Professor John Billingsley of the University of South Queensland, John Reid, Director, Product Technology and Innovation at John Deere's Moline Technology Innovation Center (MTIC), and Professor Mingcong Deng of the Graduate School of Engineering, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

Invited speakers included Andrew Bate, Founding Director and CEO of SWARM FARM Robotic Agriculture, Marcel Bergerman (mentioned above), Professor Simon Blackmore, Head of Engineering at Harper-Adams University, Bruce Finney, Executive Director of Australia's Cotton Research and Development Corporation (CRDC), David Johnson of ACFR, Anthony Kachenko, Research & Development Team Leader & Portfolio Manager at Horticulture Innovation Australia, Associate Professor Kendra Kerrisk of the University of Sydney, Juan Nieto, ACFR Research Fellow, Timo Oksanen, University lecturer in the Helsinki University Department of Agricultural Sciences, Professor Tristan Perez of Queensland University of Technology, Rohan Rainbow of Crop Protection Australia, Andrew Robson, a Research Fellow with the Precision Agriculture Research Group (PARG) at the University of New England, Daniel Schmoldt, National Program Leader in the Division of Agricultural Systems, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Professor Salah Sukkarieh (mentioned above), Professor EJ (Eldert) van Henten (mentioned above), Brett Whelan, University of Sydney Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, and Qin Zhang, Director of the Center for Precision & Automated Agriculture at Washington State University.

Of these, Robert Fitch,Salah Sukkarieh, and Kendra Kirrisk have all been interviewed by Robots Podcast, and Andrew Bate was mentioned prominently in an interview with Peter Corke of Queensland University of Technology. Kendra Kirrisk was also included in 25 women in robotics you need to know about (2014) and in Robotic cornucopia: Robohub focuses on the state-of-the-art and the future of agricultural robotics, and Simon Blackmore, Salah Sukkarieh, and EJ (Eldert) van Henten were all mentioned in a review of an article by James Mitchell Crow. Simon Blackmore has also been interviewed numerous times by BBC Radio4's Farming Today.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation published several articles about the event on their website: one highlighting Robert Fitch and Andrew Bate, another highlighting EJ van Henten, and a third highlighting Simon Blackmore.

This is an auspicious beginning for what should become an important annual event.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


The US government currently favors production of certain crops, including corn (maize) and soy beans. A proposal, authored by Tamar Haspel and published yesterday in The Washington Post (Unearthed: A rallying cry for a crop program that could change everything), would change that by shifting subsidies from support for particular crops to crop-neutral support.

While this isn't specifically about robotics, it would have the effect of making more money available for equipment to produce crops other than the handful that have traditionally been subsidized, and, increasingly over time, that will mean robotic equipment, as the value added by sensors, processing, and flexible behavior will become too compelling to forego.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

The costs and benefits of a 'moonshot' project

I've recently come to the conclusion that what I've been proposing in this blog is essentially equivalent to President Kennedy's proposal that the United States should mount a space exploration effort sufficient to send an astronaut on a round trip to the Moon within the decade, at a time when many people still believed such an enterprise to be impossible, despite that, for experts, it had clearly become a matter of doing the engineering, and only the timeline was in doubt, not the objective.

Similarly, while we don't yet have the technology to accomplish the economic robotic performance of horticultural best practices on the scale of agriculture, it's quite clear that no fundamental obstacle stands in the way of developing such technology. We have only to apply ourselves, as roboticists and as citizens supporting their efforts (private, corporate, academic, and governmental citizens), to the project.

I've already addressed many benefits we might expect such a project to produce, directly, as a result of success in the goal of creating the technology necessary to accomplish scaling up those best practices. What I haven't yet more than mentioned in passing, are the spinoffs that can be expected, even if we can't predict what most of them might be in advance.

It's widely understood that the Apollo program produced spinoffs that, taken together, amounted to a huge contribution to the economy, perhaps even more than offsetting the cost of the program itself, not least being the concentration of engineering expertise in US universities and US-based corporations.

Similarly, a determined effort to develop the necessary technologies to support, for example, polyculture incorporating perennials, can be expected to produce numerous spinoffs along the way, not the least of which would be a generation of engineers versed in the many technologies which are collectively referred to as robotics, with the confidence to apply those technologies to the tough problem of cleaning up the environmental damage humanity has done over the past few centuries.

While measured in millions of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of millions to a few billion per year, the cost of underwriting the R&D to accomplish all this would be minor compared with the cost of the Apollo program (in inflation-adjusted dollars), in part because of the far more modest scale of the resources required. Compared to the cost of recent military campaigns it would be paltry. Most importantly, in comparison with the costs of failing to do so, of leaving the future to fend for itself, it would be inconsequential. We cannot afford not to do it!