Friday, December 16, 2011

IPM: Integrated Pest Management

The concept of Integrated Pest Management has been around for several decades, and is just as useful in a robotic, no-till scenario as it is combined with conventional, traction-based agriculture, perhaps even more so. In a nutshell, it's about the inclusion of biological controls in a mix of methods that can also include mechanical and chemical controls. The use of barn owls in the video below is an excellent example.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

reforming agriculture through more sophisticated mechanization

Historically, at least since the mechanization of agriculture began in earnest, there have been two primary measures of agricultural productivity, the amount that could be grown on a given acreage and the percentage of the population required to feed all of us. The former, measured in bushels or tons per acre, has generally been increasing and the latter, measured in man-hours per bushel or ton, decreasing for at least the last hundred years, albeit more so for some crops than for others. (A consequence of the decreasing need for labor to produce many staples has been the migration of the children of farmers to cities, where they helped keep the cost of labor low in other enterprises.)

Corn (maize) is a good example of a crop for which these conventional measures of productivity tell a story of brilliant progress, with the result that corn is cheap enough to use not only as livestock feed, to be converted into meat and dairy products, but as the feedstock for production of ethanol for fuel, competing with fuels refined from petroleum pumped from the ground, rather remarkable considering that corn kernels represent only a small fraction of the biomass of a corn plant and that fermentation and distillation aren't particularly efficient processes.

Crops that fair less well by these measures include many vegetables and most fruits, which have been becoming gradually more expensive, especially as compared with grains that are easily handled mechanically, but even compared with meat and dairy products from grain-fed livestock. One major consequence of this has been that people generally consume more grains, meat, and dairy products, and less fruit and vegetables than they once did, before the mechanization juggernaut got started and while vegetable gardens were still common.

So, by an altogether different measure, how healthy the average diet is, mechanization has been a disaster, so far. I say "so far" because the essential problem is that, so far, mechanization has favored crops consisting of hard, dry seeds, that are easily handled in bulk, making other crops needed for a balanced diet relatively less affordable. In happier economic times this would matter less, as people would simply pay the premium for a healthier diet, but the times being what they are people are scrimping however they can, including with the food they consume.

There are other ways of measuring productivity: energy use*, soil gain or loss*, water use and contamination*, and the degree to which a given practice denies space to native flora and habitat to native fauna. By any of these measures, conventional mechanization comes out looking at least shortsighted if not dimwitted.

*(per unit produced)

So is the answer to turn back the clock on agricultural technology, to replace the plow with the hoe and the drill with the planting stick? I'm not prepared to make that argument - although I've no doubt others would - aside from noting that gardens are a better use of many urban spaces than are lawns, and there is no further need for rural communities to supply cities with cheap labor, since those cities are already well supplied, and many rural areas suffer from depopulation.

Instead, my position is that we need to take mechanization to the next level, replacing dumb machines suited only to bulk operations with smart machines capable of performing well-informed, detailed manipulations, for example controlling weeds by selectively pulling them from the ground or pest caterpillars by picking them from plants (unless they've already been parasitized, as by wasps) rather than by applying poisons.

Given machinery with an adequate array of sensors and a sufficiently broad range of optional actions, applying best practices becomes a matter of mating these with processing power connected to an expert system, and of programming.

It gets better, because the same system that works the land can be used to improve the expert system through experimentation and, in routine operation, by accumulation of data to which statistical methods can be applied, and can also be used to improve the crops themselves, as for instance by leaving the best formed, most insect resistant cabbages to go to seed.

The bottom line is that this approach can make available the mechanical equivalent of an attentive expert gardener, at a cost, given predictable economies of scale, that would make possible the wholesale replacement of conventional, traction-based machinery and methods with more adaptable machinery bringing a whole new repertoire of methods to bear, one far better suited to the production of the fruits and vegetables that have been becoming unaffordable under the current regime.

As for the other measures of productivity mentioned above, such machinery, since it wouldn't need to turn soil in bulk and could operate long hours without continuous supervision, would consume energy at a relatively low rate, suitable for supply from solar panels or via the grid from renewable sources. It could operate through continuous ground cover, all but eliminating soil loss, and with minimal use or complete non-use of herbicides and pesticides, reducing soil and water contamination. Ground cover, mulch, and the humus accumulating from decaying roots can also reduce the need for irrigation, and the ability to create local varieties through seed selection based on the health of maturing plants can further reduce it, as well as helping to adapt more quickly to climate change. Making room for native species, something that can only be accomplished in conventional practice by leaving land completely undisturbed, becomes a matter of programming the system to leave certain species alone, wherever it finds them, even to the extent of tolerating some crop loss to native fauna, and to leave anything it can't identify alone until it can be identified.

Such machinery might not be able to compete with conventional practice in the production of corn and other bulk commodities, at least to start with, but it also wouldn't consume prodigious amounts of petroleum-based fuels. Moreover, development and rapid deployment of such machinery would drive the growth of a new, potentially domestic industry, one that would also work to the benefit of materials recycling efforts, more efficient transportation, and on and on.

The R-word I haven't yet mentioned is robotics. While such machines probably aren't what most people first think of when robots are mentioned, their creation and production falls squarely within the discipline of robotics, composed as they would necessarily be from robotic technologies.

Reposted from Lacy Ice + Heat

Friday, December 09, 2011

monitoring fields with UAVs

They're using radio-controlled aircraft rather than autonomous machines, but it's still a big improvement over the time spent walking fields or the lack of detail that comes from only checking the edges of a field. I expect further improvements with the introduction of better sensors and on-board controllers.

Crossposted from Lacy Ice + Heat

Saturday, November 26, 2011

abandoned railway roadbeds

In the Emma Marris video linked below, there appears to be an abandoned railway roadbed in the background. Such spaces almost automatically return to nature, left to themselves for a few years, but if the rails haven't been removed they are ideal testbeds for robotic equipment designed to guide, elaborate, and accelerate that process.

Besides the usual gardening techniques, such machines could move some soil and gravel from the rail-bed around to create microclimates with various shading/exposure, slope, drainage, water collection and/or even distribution across a flat bottom. They could weave vines together to create sheltered spaces for small birds, train high branches of trees from both sides of the rail-bed to arch overhead, creating deep shade by tying them together, position art objects intended to provide habitat for mice, birds, and bats and anchor them with soil and gravel. These machines could also assist other species in the creation of their preferred shelters, for instance by digging a bit of a hollow at the bases of trees with roots that spread abruptly just under the surface, or providing platforms in the forks of tree branches, just big enough to support proper nests, constructed of sticks and twine.

Emphasis on avian habitat would mean faster accumulation of a diversity of plant species, because birds frequently pass the seeds of berries they've eaten through, undigested. And, because the seeds of berries preferred by birds predominate, the result is a positive feedback loop.

Such machines could also provide damage-free access to the resulting space through inclusion of observation decks on top of the robotic rail platforms. If several such machines are to be spread along a single rail-bed, they should be designed so that they are able to approach each other closely enough that their observation decks come together, allowing riders to step across from one to another.

Emma Marris: Rambunctious Garden

While I fully expect Emma Marris would deem the use of robots to create her Rambunctious Garden a distraction, and my contention that robotics is necessary to the achievement of sustainability non-obvious, at best, I still must consider her an ally, for preaching the gospel of making the best of what we have left.

My hope is that the goal of rewilding can be interwoven with that of producing food, fiber, and fuel, on a grand scale, through the creation and application of robotic systems of land management capable of nurturing crop plants through their entire life cycles while leaving neighboring plants undisturbed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

the importance of robotics to the achievement of sustainability

In a mid-August post bearing the same title, on my primary blog, I stated:

I firmly believe that (short of convincing the vast majority of people to return to subsistence farming, something which could only be accomplished through intense coercion) robotics is vitally important to achieving sustainability.

Realizing others' mileage might vary, I took that post to a conferencing system I've been on for over twenty years and asked whether the notion seemed counterintuitive to anyone there. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it did. In fact, I was probably the only participant in the conversation for whom the idea wasn't at least a bit odd.

Understand that we're not talking about your standard social network fare, here. The other participants in the conversation are, to a person, all intelligent and (otherwise) well informed.

Seeing that the conversation had pretty well run its course, I concluded with the following:

It's unfortunate that so much of robotics is weapons research, and even more unfortunate that the associations most people have with robots and robotics is of clunky machines that are unintentionally dangerous.

The clunkiness is a passing phase, and already an anachronism in many cases, but I can see why some prefer to avoid the word "robot", talking instead about intelligent or adaptive machines. In Japan they speak of RTs, Robotic Technologies, which makes for a nice refocusing in my humble opinion. Robotic technologies find there way into all sorts of objects not usually considered robots.

A more general restatement of the proposition I laid out [here] would be that robotic technologies are essential to the achievement of sustainability. This might be an easier sell, however I really do mean robots, complete with interchangeable manipulators on the ends of arms with at least a few degrees of freedom, and operation that is sufficiently autonomous to break the 1-to-1 correspondence between machine and operator, with the machines conceivably running 24/7 during the busiest season (and maybe drawing some power from the grid to keep them running through the night).

It's my belief that the use of such machines is the only way we'll ever manage to bring best practices to the vast majority of land in production, and that the best that is possible without them will prove unsustainable in the long run.

That this point of view was at least initially counterintuitive for the unusually astute social environment in which I posed it means to me that there's still a great deal of work to be done to repair the perceptual damage done by the preponderance of robot portrayals in fiction and to jumpstart creative imagination for how autonomous machinery might help us surmount the difficult challenges before us.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

agricultural robotics and employment

At least with regard to agriculture, the effect of robotics upon employment depends on the approach taken. If your goal is to further reduce the number of people deriving an income from farming, and you are willing to accept any other sort of expense to that end (autonomous tractors for instance), then you can probably manage to reduce the percentage of the workforce engaged in agricultural production to an even smaller fraction of 1%.

If your goal is to maximize the production of those crops that are easily produced and handled in bulk and survive long-term storage well, in the interest of generating return on capital investment and foreign exchange, and only care about how it's done insofar as that impacts the bottom line, you might conclude that capital expenditures to further minimize payroll would generally not be cost effective, that it would cost more to replace the remaining workforce than to keep it.

However, if you're interested in guaranteeing the sustainability of production far into the future, despite climate change, while also halting soil loss, ending the use of poisons, preserving remaining diversity in both crop and native genomes, and rebalancing production for healthier diets, you may need both more sophisticated machinery and all the people you can recruit.

Such a complicated goal implies complex operations, and complex operations imply a large variety of tasks, some easily mechanized and others common enough to make mechanization worthwhile, even though challenging. Those that are neither common nor easily mechanized will fall to human workers, farmers and farmhands, who are far more adaptable than any machine.

At some point in the future it may become possible to build machines adaptable enough to take the place of a farmer, but until the annual cost of ownership of such a machine drops below the annual cost of one human worker, it won't make economic sense to deploy them, and without an infrastructure to drive down the cost of robotics, that may never happen.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

I'm one of those people who doesn't really follow the gossip about the House of Windsor. Oh, you can't help but hear about the biggest items, like the recent wedding, but I've mainly been content to leave them what little privacy they might manage. I did see "The King's Speech" and learned more from it than I'd known prior to seeing it. One consequence of this lack of attention has been that I've had a rather sketchy view of Prince Charles, one lacking any notion of whatever depth the man possesses.

So imagine my surprise when he turns out to be not only a serious fellow, but one with whom I share a deep concern. As reported in the New York Times blog Green, Prince Charles spoke earlier today at a Georgetown University conference on the future of food and sustainable agriculture. According to that report, he gave an earnest and statistics-heavy address touching on such staples of the natural food movement as the virtues of composting and the need to maintain biodiversity. A bit further on it says he focused on current methods of mechanized factory farming and meat production, saying they were depleting the soil, devouring water supplies, exacerbating climate change and poisoning streams and oceans. ... He said that such methods, heavily dependent on fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers and pesticides, produced unhealthy foods and drove small local growers out of business. ... He said that the world faced the challenge of feeding a population rapidly headed toward nine billion people without destroying the environment that humans depend on.

Wow! Right on!

I think I've got at least the outline of a partial solution here, in the vision laid out in this blog, using robotics to make it possible to leave behind the worst aspects of conventional agriculture and to enable a new set of practices. That new set of practices could be sustainable, although the use of robotics per se doesn't guarantee that it will be. We, as farmers, as technologists, as entrepreneurs, as investors, as regulators, as representatives, as citizens, and as consumers, must insist on a version of the future that is sustainable. We must cooperate to hold the feet of those who see private advantage in the least possible change to the fire of unrelenting necessity.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

from despair to renewed hope to expectation

I'm well aware that the tone of most of the posts here is fairly dark, that many of them come from a place of failed hope. The main reason for this is that I wasn't well plugged into current activities (research...) in robotics, and wasn't aware that they continued to include elements of progress in a direction I'd term 'hopeful'.

In the last few months this state of affairs has turned around dramatically, and I've moved from despair to renewed hope to expectation that something approximating the vision I've laid out here will actually happen, is already underway in point of fact. The questions which remain are how quickly it will proceed, and the degree to which the result will embrace concerns not directly related to crop production.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Some Things Can't Be Done Without Robots

I had pretentions of being a back-to-the-land hippy before I ever became seriously interested in robotics, but my brother successfully popped that bubble with a simple, unarguable observation, that most people don't want to go back to subsistence farming. So far as that went, he was right, but that didn't make the abusive practices of modern agriculture acceptable. I didn't have an answer, but I kept looking for one.

I had a pretty good idea of what computing was about from an introduction to CS class in which we wrote FORTRAN programs on cardpunches. At that scale there was no help to be found from that direction, but the advent of the microprocessor changed everything. Suddenly it became thinkable to have mobile devices each with its own electronic brain. My mind reeled with the possibilities, but there were a million unknowns.

One thing was clear, though, if Moore's Law was even close to being correct it wouldn't be long before the speed of the electronics was no longer the hangup. It would be the mechanical designs, the software, much of which would depend on transforming biological knowledge into computer code, and the chicken/egg problem of creating an industry and a market for that industry's products at the same time.

And that's pretty much where we are now. The speed of the electronics has so far exceeded the other pieces of the puzzle that even if we might wish for still more it's a moot point. We're not putting what's available to good use.

Remember, we're talking here about getting what we need from the land while honoring the back-to-the-land aesthetic of living lightly upon it, as a species, but not about people fleeing the cities to scratch out their personal livelihoods with whatever meager assemblage of skills they might manage to collect. That could be more destructive than factory farms.

The solution, really the only possible solution if we're to stop soil erosion, ground water and stream contamination, the loss of biodiversity, and the gutting of rural culture, is robots. That's right, robots.

Only by substituting machines which can be invested with some understanding of ecology, or which are at least well suited to play a role in an ecologically sound approach, for the dumb machines currently in use, can we have it all, our comfortable lives, a reliable supply of food of varied types, and a clear conscience.

I'd love to be telling you about all of the cool developments in cultivation robotics, how this team had succeeded in building a system that could differentiate between closely related species immediately upon sprouting, and how another had created a tiny robot that ran on the body fluids of the aphids it consumed. I wish I could report that the USDA had funded research into intermingling rare and endangered native species with crop species and making room for moderate wildlife populations without sacrificing too much commercial productivity. Heh, at least I can truthfully say it could happen, which seemed pretty far fetched just one year ago.

Realistically, though, nearly all of that sort of work remains to be done, and it'll be a great ride when it finally does begin to happen!

Crossposted from my blog on

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Harvest Automation

And so it begins! The January 14th episode of Robots Podcast features an interview with Joe Jones, CTO of Harvest Automation (previously with iRobot).

Harvest Automation didn't start out with the idea of building robots for greenhouse operations, instead they looked around for a market where their initial efforts, to develop what was essentially a larger, more powerful version of the Roomba (without the vacuum), would be applicable outside of the initial context, instead of their having to start from a blank slate for each application.

They settled on agriculture, beginning with a machine to move potted plants around, operating alongside human workers. It isn't hard to imagine how this platform might develop in various directions to perform other horticultural tasks, eventually evolving into a scalable system capable of applying intensive methods to large land areas. That's not the stated goal of Harvest Automation, but the profit motive may very well lead them in that direction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

the ascendency of Arduino

Engadget recently posted an embedded Vimeo video consisting of the earliest participants in the Arduino project, talking about how it got started.

Similarly, a search of YouTube with "arduino" as the search term results in over 5,000 hits.

Having had difficulty wrapping my head around the Arduino phenomena, I prefer to let the team tell their own story (2016/May/10: now sourced on YouTube)...

Arduino The Documentary (2010) English HD from gnd on Vimeo.

Saturday, January 15, 2011 blog has closed their forum (probably due to a low rate of participation), and has also partnered with Robots.Net, a venerable robotics related website.

Members there are automatically set up with blogs, consequently I have a new one, which I anticipate using more than this one henceforth, although I'll probably continue to bring relevant material here as well.

In that vein, the latest episode of RobotsPodcast features Joe Jones of Harvest Automation. Mr. Jones was employee #1 at iRobot, and is the creator of the Roomba, which in the interview he describes as constituting a "beautiful island" because the technology it utilizes is far different from what would be needed for other domestic devices it inspires people to ask for. Mr. Jones believes agriculture offers better opportunities for reuse of technologies developed for an initial use case.