Sunday, December 23, 2012

Technology for its own sake vs. benefits

On using robots to make gardening scalable to millions of acres...

You might wonder why I want to turn land management over to robots. Is it because I'm such a geek that I think everything goes better with robots? No, not really. Sure, I think the technology is cool, but I'm not eager to factor human beings altogether out of any activity, not even those that are dull, dirty, and/or dangerous.

I am, however, eager to see the benefits of replacing methods designed to spread a human operator's time as thinly as possible with methods which reintroduce attention to detail to plant cultivation. Granted, that attention would, for the most part, be provided by robotic sensors, processors, and algorithms, but that has an upside as well as a downside.

The downside is mainly that it's unfamiliar and we don't know whether we can trust it. The upside is that robots aren't limited to human senses, but can go as far beyond them as available technology will support, providing information not directly available to us, and they also aren't limited to the time a human operator can afford to invest, provided they are capable of autonomous operation. Potentially this means that instead of a single machine running 40-60 hours per week, you can have many machines running 24/7, vastly increasing the available machine time per land area.

Combine that rich sensory information and machine time availability with manipulators capable of performing basic gardening operations (planting, weeding, pruning, harvesting, saving seed, ...) and you have a platform justifying the effort to develop higher level software which supervises beneficial plant combinations in space (polyculture) and time (crop rotation), which is capable of mixing annuals with perennials (permaculture), which makes room for native plants (particularly those that are threatened or endangered), which also makes room for animals without allowing them to ruin crops, and which can make sure there are enough flowers, throughout the season, to keep pollinators healthy.

Such a system could also learn from experience, even setting up intentional experiments, maintain the genetic diversity of crops, and accelerate the creation of new strains in response to changing conditions. It could also provide exquisitely detailed information in support of operation management.

Technology of this sort would make for a far more varied and interesting landscape (biodiversity) and greater variety of production (diversified income), supporting a more well balanced diet for those dependent upon it. It could also dramatically reduce the energy and other inputs used in crop production, all but eliminate soil erosion and the airborne dust and stream contamination that result, reverse the loss of organic matter in the soil (improving its water absorption and retention and contributing to the sequestration of atmospheric carbon), save many endangered species from the brink of extinction, and bring the practice of agriculture into parity with other aspects of the modern world in its sophistication and the respect it commands, helping to enhance rural culture.

So, yes, that would be very cool technology, but it's really about all of the benefits that could be realized through its widespread deployment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

John Robbins speaking at Stanford

John Robbins speaking at Stanford, before the election, about California's Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of GMO content in foods, and related topics. (Mr. Robbins' talk begins at 3:30.)

Saturday, December 08, 2012

an alternative statement of purpose

Cultibotics is about the application of robotics to the cultivation of plants for food, animal feed and forage, for flowers and foliage, for fiber, fuel and feedstocks, for erosion abatement, soil enrichment and landscape enhancement, and for habitat and the preservation of biodiversity. It is also about an approach to robotics that is informed by the best practices of horticulture: minimal tillage, composting, mulch, continuous ground cover, beneficial plant combinations (polyculture), the use of perennials (permaculture), biological methods of pest control, pruning of infested and diseased plant materials, the avoidance of unnecessary soil disturbance or compaction, and so forth. The dream is that robotics can serve as the means by which these best practices can be made to scale to millions of acres.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Re-righting the food pyramid through robotics

There are two main reasons why meat, dairy, and cereal products have come to dominate the dietary landscape. First, humans have a natural taste for animal-sourced foods, a taste we've gradually become more accustomed to indulging as our prowess in hunting increased, a skill which then became less relevant with the domestication of herds and flocks. But secondly, and for the purpose of explaining the current situation, more importantly, the combination of cheap oil and mechanized agriculture has made grain production so inexpensive that the use of grain in animal feed competes with its use in the production of ethanol for fuel.

The other side of that coin is that, so far, mechanization has mainly been applied to grain, soya, and a small selection of other crops that can easily be handled in bulk. Meanwhile, until quite recently, crops like strawberries, tomatoes, and asparagus had to be harvested by hand, making them relatively expensive. Mechanical handling is now becoming available for the more common fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, these crops are also typically heavily dosed with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

But mechanization as currently practiced comes with a significant downside. The machines, or at least the tractors that pull them, tend to be large and heavy, compacting the soil over which they pass, which must then be tilled to reloosen it, which kicks up some dust and exposes the soil surface to further erosion, as well as over-aerating the top few inches of soil, resulting in accelerated decay of organic material. The loss of organic material reduces the soil's capacity to absorb and hold water, making production more dependent upon predictable weather, something we can no longer count on.

The solution to all of these problems is to replace conventional mechanical approaches with smart machines, robots, that get their energy from sun and wind, use techniques compatible with no-till polyculture incorporating perennials, and operate autonomously. Using this approach, biological methods could supplant most use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and to the extent these were needed they could be applied sparingly, with precision. This approach would also act to level the pricing of fruit and vegetables as compared with meat, dairy, and grains, making a more balanced diet more affordable.

One additional benefit of the robotic approach is that it could just as easily make room for native flora and fauna, making the same land serve both as native habitat and for crop production. Beyond a certain level of sensory and mechanical sophistication, it becomes a matter of programming to take such factors into account.