Thursday, July 04, 2013

why green activists should support and help shape robotics

Call it what you like, organic farming, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, or whatever else, unless all you're talking about is green window dressing on otherwise conventional techniques, involving routine tillage and unrelieved stands of uniform annual crops, your going to find that most of the available equipment isn't well suited to the approach you're proposing.

Take permaculture for one example. Conventional agriculture knows something about permaculture, of course. There's orchards and vineyards, and a few crops, like asparagus, that regenerate annually from rhizomes. Plant the trees in rows, far enough apart that you can fit a small tractor between them, and you're in business. For perennial crops that are mown down annually, the row spacing can be half the track width of the equipment you're using, since that equipment can straddle the rows. This isn't optimal; the space between the rows generally goes unused. But this approach allows the use of familiar equipment.

On the other hand, if the crop you have in mind to grow is a perennial version of wheat (currently in development), and you're competing in a commodity market with others growing wheat in the usual manner, as an annual, that space lost to tracks for equipment wheels starts to be significant, cutting into your available acreage and, because margins for commodities are tight, profitability.

For another example, let's consider polyculture. One such that most people have at least heard about is the traditional mixture of maize, beans, and squash in the American southwest. Think about how you would handle this cropping system mechanically. Can all be planted at once, or will planting require multiple passes. Can you harvest the beans without damaging the maize or the squash? What about weeding?

Now consider a system incorporating both permaculture and polyculture, say growing your maize, beans, and squash in the spaces between apple trees. How will you get your equipment onto the land to get anything done at all? Perhaps make sure the wheels of your tractor and other equipment always follow the same tracks, but that's an awkward solution. A better solution would be to install elevated rails (expensive), or posts which could be used to support relocatable rails, or pads on which legged machines could place their weight.

The last of these approaches obviously requires robotic equipment, with articulated legs. The posts and movable rails approach also requires at least a robotic arm, to handle the rails. Permanent elevated rail could be used to suspend anything, but if you've gone to the expense of installing it you'll want the other advantages robotic equipment can offer.

Those other advantages derive from the potential of robotics to make the best practices of gardening scalable – practices an experienced gardener might apply on a quarter acre of land but not even attempt on a five acre plot, for lack of time. I've mentioned many of these at one time or another, but in a nutshell the option to make use of them is a function of how many eye/brain/hand-hours you can bring to bear per area per growing season.

Autonomous operation allows one person to delegate this work to multiple/many machines, which (assuming they aren't using energy-intensive techniques like plowing), can operate 24/7 if need be. Sensors substitute for eyes, processors for brains, and mechanical arms and manipulators for hands. Given these basics, robotic machinery can, for instance, pick slugs and larger insects instead of poisoning them, prune diseased/infested plant parts instead of spraying, and deal just as easily with a mixed stand including perennials as with a uniform crop.

To be blunt about it, if you want to reform agriculture, you're going to need a lot of help from robots, and the sooner you realize this and begin to participate in shaping the future of robotics, the better the outcome will be.

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