Wednesday, August 23, 2006

what's happening in robotics

There are too many robotics related websites to catalog them all. Here are few of them...

IEEE Robotics and Automation Society's Technical Committee on Service Robots website contains a page dedicated to Agriculture & Harvesting Robots, with many links to related activities around the world.

Arrick Robotics's website has a long list of robotics clubs. One of those, the San Francisco Robotics Society of America has a particularly interesting website., Robot Gossip, and are robotics news blogs.

Artificial Intelligence News, just what it says it is.

I only plan to cover developments which are at least plausibly related to the application of robotics to crop cultivation, except perhaps as a bit of news is so compelling that I can't help but mention it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

on the meaning of "cultivation"

As it commonly applies to raising plants, "cultivation" usually refers to a process involving the manipulation of soil, to incorporate plant residues into the soil after the previous harvest, to prepare a seedbed for new planting, or between the rows of a growing crop to suppress weeds. That aspect, the manipulation of soil, isn't particularly emphasized, it's just assumed, like breathing; it's seen as being inextricably part of the process, not every time the farmer enters a field, but sooner or later, and repeatedly. "Tillage" is a synonym for this sense of the word.

There's a more general sense of "cultivation" that simply refers to raising plants, and which applies as much to the practices of nomadic tribes, involving no more tillage than poking seed holes in the ground with a sharp stick, as it does to agriculture as it is commonly practiced today.

It's that second, more general sense of the word that's intended here, as the potential advantages of using robotics in horticulture and agriculture stem largely from making it possible to dispense with the other sense of the word, tillage.

That's not to say that a cultibot wouldn't perform soil manipulation, rather what's expected is that it will resemble what a gardener performs with a hoe, trowel, and (occasionally) shovel, instead of what a farmer performs with a plow, and that the total amount of energy involved in performing it will be a small fraction of what the current practice of farming consumes -- and the rate of energy consumption even lower, since autonomous operation will allow it to be distributed over more time, perhaps even 24/7. (This combination of lower energy requirements and more time should make solar panels a practical power source.)

There's yet another sense of the word, as it applies reflexively or to human relationships, as in the cultivation of patience or friendship, which should at least inform how the vision of cultibotics is understood. In its fully realized state, a cultibot would not only raise plants and produce food, but it would tend the land in all its aspects, specifically including as it also serves as habitat for wild species, both plants and animals. This could be seen as cultivating a field's participation in the larger environment, making a little room among the crops for other life.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

robotic master gardeners

This blog is about a vision of a future in which the tending of productive land has been turned over to autonomously operating machines that approach this task much like a master gardener would, one plant or one small patch at a time.

Potential advantages include reduction or elimination of the need for petroleum-based fuels, fertilizer, and pesticides, an increase in the variety and value per acre of crops produced, a huge improvement in the sustainability of agriculture, and a revitalization of rural society through a more interesting, varied environment and the creation of technical jobs (maintenance, etc.). Detailed, automated land management could also help rescue endangered plant species from the brink of extinction.

I'll be gradually filling out this vision and substantiating each of the points above, while at the same time mentioning any related developments I might learn about and accumulating a list of related efforts (academic, commercial, etc.).