Tuesday, November 25, 2008
To begin with, while you can see the potential for it in what exists today, the technology largely remains to be developed, so figure five years of R&D and experimental installations before anything starts rolling off an assembly line, and probably another five to get the bugs out to the point where it's really possible to let the machines run without some degree of supervision.
At that point, ten years hence, you might still have to drive twenty miles to see one of the new machines in operation. Then, for at least another ten the story would be one of them becoming very gradually more common, as well as more sophisticated. Meanwhile there's mouths to feed, hundreds of millions of them, and business as usual will necessarily continue.
At some point, maybe twenty-five or thirty years out, the size of the market for food cultivated by autonomous machines would surpass the size of the market for conventionally grown food, and at about that time I would expect to see several things happen. For one thing, the largest tractors would disappear from the market, as there would no longer be sufficient demand to justify their production. Also, a shakeout would begin among tractor and implement companies that hadn't gotten into robotics themselves. On the other hand, the infrastructure for getting grain and produce to market could be expected to improve, under pressure from robotic operations with their more diverse output and their ability to provide detailed information about what they would need to move how soon.
Some crops, however, would continue to be more economically produced by conventional methods. In particular, it would be difficult for generalized machines using horticultural methods to match the efficiency of traction-based monoculture in the production of small grains - wheat, barley, oats, and rye. At least in the near term, the reduction in acreage dedicated to raising these crops by conventional methods would result not from direct robotic competition, but from the substitution of more fruits and vegetables in place of grains in the diets of both people and livestock.
Granted, with the advances in robotics that all of this activity would bring about, the tractors on the market then would likely also be capable of autonomous operation, although I'd expect to see a lot of hold-out farmers, using older equipment, still spending long hours driving their tractors, powered by synthetic fuels. Whether that practice will ever become as uncommon as farming with horses had become in 1960 is anyone's guess.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Similarly, if you want to build a multi-vendor market for almost anything, one of the best things you can do is to find the natural divisions of responsibility and insert standard interfaces into the boundaries between them.
One example, in the context of cultibotics, would be the connections between robotic arms and tool units that attach to them. What physical form should the connections take? How much force should the mechanical connection be able to withstand or apply? What services should the unit be able to expect from the arm? What signals should each understand or send to the other, or pass through to the CPU? Would the arm supply water, or should any unit making use of it have a hose connected to it in addition to its connection to the arm?
Detailed answers to these questions would fill a thick book, which is what it typically takes to specify a standard. Moreover, chances that any standard organization which undertook to fill in the details would decide that there would need to be several such standards, to accommodate scales ranging from very small to very large.
But given a set of well-defined standards, you'd be able to buy a robotic arm from company A and a tool unit complying to the same standard from company B, and have good reason for confidence that you could just plug them together and have it work seamlessly.
Until now there hasn't been much need for standardization in agriculture. The prime examples of what there has been would be power takeoff, hitches, and hydraulic connectors, all of which have been standardized by the ISO, which makes it the most likely candidate for tackling standards for robotics in agriculture.
Of course the ISO isn't going to get involved until there's at least the beginnings of a market and more activity than sparse experimentation, so it behooves those who do get involved early to cooperate with each other to develop ad hoc standards which are in the public domain, royalty-free, or available for low-cost-per-unit licensing, suitable to the bootstrap nature of the field. These ad hoc standards can later serve as the starting point for formal standards.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
It's not like there was any shortage of ideas for how to improve the stability of U.S. agriculture, the lot of farmers, and the economic vitality of rural America. Just have a look at President-Elect Obama's rural agenda.
What would the ideas encapsulated here look like if embraced by the Obama-Biden team? What might they be called? Here's a few focused statements that occur to me...
- Help insulate farmers and farming regions from dependency on volatile bulk commodity markets by encouraging greater diversity of production.
- Facilitate production improvements through both simultaneous and sequential polyculture.
- Enable farmers to grow more of their own food without need for much time investment or manual labor.
- Reduce the time spent in machine operation.
- Reduce the acreage needed for an economically viable farming operation.
- Reduce the initial investment required to start a farm.
- Provide farmers and their children with high-tech experience.
- Create a demand for skilled technicians and technical instructors in rural areas.
- Create opportunities for rural youth.
- Preserve local crop varieties and experiment with new crops.
- Improve the quality and diversity of locally available produce.
- Reverse the impoverishment of rural culture.
- Reduce exposure to pesticides and pesticide residues.
- Reduce the dependency of agriculture on fossil fuels and feed stocks.
- Reduce contamination of runoff and ground water.
- Reduce and eventually reverse the loss of soil fertility.
- Reduce wind-borne dust.
- Enlist productive land in the efforts to preserve endangered species and provide wildlife habitat.
This list could be far longer, but that should be enough for a sample.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
First, these machines will necessarily have sensory components. Digital cameras and microphones are practically a given, but they may also have infrared imaging, radar and/or laser scanning, chemical sensors to provide something akin to a sense of smell, pressure/stress sensors for a sense of touch, probes for soil moisture, temperature, pH, O2 content, and nutrient availability, weather instruments, and some means of locating themselves very precisely relative to the boundaries of a field or other stationary reference. Compared to most machines, they will have available a rich collection of information about their environments, rich compared even with what human senses provide.
Next, they will have significant computer processing power, sufficient to take the data streams from all of these sensory devices, find patterns in them, compare them with each other and with historical data (including the exact position of every seed and when it was planted), create and update a real time 3-dimensional model of their immediate surroundings, locate items of interest within that model, choose a course of action, and send the detailed instructions to the machine's moving parts, closely monitoring their progress.
Finally, they will have various moving parts, likely including high resolution or specialized sensory components that can be sent in for a closer look. Those moving parts might include a range of grips, from fine tweezers to something strong enough to uproot small trees, mechanical snips, lasers with enough power to fry a meristem, high-pressure water jets capable of slicing through the stem of a plant, fingers to move other plant material out of the way, a vacuum for sampling air at ground level or removing insects, sprinklers and sprayers, trowels of various sizes, and, of course, the soil probes mentioned earlier. Such tools might be combined into sets incorporated into units which could be plugged onto the ends of articulated arms and quickly switched out.
That's a basic outline, but we need to return to the data processing hardware and the code it runs to fill out the picture, since it can make the difference between an expensive toy and a productive machine that more than pays for itself. A major task the processor must perform is resource scheduling, and to do that effectively it must sort actions into those that can be performed without moving anything massive (slow) and without switching out tool units, those which require either movement or a tool switch but must nevertheless be accomplished before moving on, those which can be left until a future pass over the same area but not indefinitely, and those which can be left undone unless it becomes convenient to do them. Efficient scheduling also means mapping the movement of even the smallest parts so they proceed smoothly from one thing to the next, without having to retrace their paths more than is unavoidable.
An important point to be taken away from the previous paragraph is that scrimping on computing hardware and software is likely to prove counterproductive, by reducing the overall capacity of the machine disproportionately. We should expect the computing components to represent a substantial fraction of the overall cost of the machine, and we shouldn't be surprised if they also consume a substantial fraction of its energy budget. Better to invest an extra 10-20% to make a given physical machine capable of performing the work of two, and to invest 1 or 2 kilowatt-hours to save ten.
Something which should be apparent from this mental exercise as a whole is that what's being proposed is largely a simple extrapolation of technologies which already exist. There are already mechanical arms and mechanical grips; there are already sensors and various means of controlling machine operation. What's mainly missing is the software which would turn data streams into a 3-d model in a horticultural context, choose what to do, schedule resources, and map out the details. That's a lot left to be done, requiring a significant investment for a long term payoff, but it's a fairly straightforward problem, and divisible into more manageable chunks. Let's get to it!
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
There's no single, right answer to these questions. Rather there's a wide range of potential answers, some of which will likely prove more workable than others. Let's look at some of the possibilities.
What would it look like? Almost anything, from a snake-like device slithering along the surface, to what appears to be little more than a single wheel rolling about, to a platform supported by long, spider-like legs, to a beam supported at each end by wheeled trucks. It may turn out that the best arrangement is a mixture of larger and smaller machines, with the larger ones designed to never put their weight on soil being cultivated.
How would it be powered, and how would it transmit power to the parts that need it? They could get their power directly from the grid, from engine-driven generators, from wind generators, from photovoltaic panels, from concentrating solar collectors, or simply from batteries or other energy storage. Any such machine will need at least a small amount of electricity, to power the electronics. Mechanical power could also be electrical, but needn't be. It might be provided via compressed air. Delicate, articulated parts might be moved via fine cables or wires, much as our own fingers are moved by tendons linking to muscles in our forearms.
What actions would it be capable of performing? Planting seeds, of course, beyond that the possibilities are nearly endless, but even the placement of seeds can be accomplished in many ways.
In conventional agriculture, seeds are typically inserted into the soil in rows, through an opening created by a disk (a rotary knife), and covered over by a roller. This is an efficient method of planting a large area to the same crop, or even to a mixture of crops with seeds of approximately the same size, if you don't mind running the planting device and the tractor pulling it over the same soil surface through which the seeds will have to sprout and in which the sprouts will have to grow. Most such planting devices require the soil first be prepared into a seedbed, meaning that plant debris from previous crops must either be turned under, with a plow, or broken down by a combination of tillage, decay, and weathering, to form a relatively uniform surface, easily broken into small particles. A few such planting devices are capable of placing seeds through rough plant debris, rendering the preparation of a seedbed unnecessary, but they're still mainly used to sow a single crop to a large area.
A robotic gardener would also need to be able to place seeds not only through plant debris but between standing plants. It would do so one at a time, perhaps very rapidly, like a sewing machine, but still one at a time, and far more precisely than any bulk planter, positioning them in the most advantageous microenvironments available. Even when planting in bulk, the use of rows would be optional, and in many cases a honeycomb-like pattern might prove preferable.
Weeding might be accomplished by identifying weed seedlings and removing them while still in the sprout stage. Undesirable plants that propagate by root spreading could be controlled by injecting steam below the surface, wherever they appeared. Insects, like aphids, could be controlled by removing infested leaves. Diseases could be controlled by removing infected plants. Nutrient deficiencies could be identified early and treated quickly. If plant debris needed to be reduced to mulch it could be clipped off at ground level and shredded, without disturbing the soil.
In each case the action taken would be local and specific, rather than applied to an entire field, and generally would not involve moving large amounts of soil around, a practice which wastes both energy and soil fertility.
But the essential requirement, without which this whole scenario would be futile and meaningless, is that the machines must operate autonomously, puttering through their days without constant human supervision. They must have both the ability and the latitude to choose what to do next for themselves. Considering they must also operate in uncontrolled environments, this is the greatest challenge.
Monday, November 17, 2008
It is about machines bringing to bear not only cropping plans but, eventually, an understanding of plant ecology in choosing their detailed actions, balancing the need for production with other concerns, including the preservation of endangered species.
There is no example I can point to, because only bits and pieces of the technology currently exist.
My role is to point to what could be, what will be if we set our minds to it.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
Thanks to Jan Slinsky for posting this YouTube video showing a center-pivot system used for tilling a small plot of land.
While requiring more energy than tillage-free management would, this system has the advantage of operating directly on electricity, meaning that there's no necessary dependency on petroleum to keep it running. It has two electric motors, which appear to be in the 2-3 horsepower range. Using both, its maximum power requirement should be no higher than 5 KW. Using just the motor that drives the wheel at the end of the rotating beam, which would be the more common case, the maximum power requirement should be no higher than 2.5 KW.
It also has the advantage of being usable now. In fact, to judge by the video, it appears to already have been in regular use for several seasons.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
The best example of which I'm aware, Robert Silverberg's The World Inside, describes a world divided between urban towers and the land between them. The land between is tended by machines which are themselves tended by people, a rural population with a very different culture from that found in the urban towers.
While the world Silverberg describes is more of a dystopia than a utopia, not least because it is fast approaching limits that it steadfastly denies, that aspect of the book, the use of intelligent machines to enable a superior grade of land management than could be achieved without them, rings true.
Reading that book was most likely the beginning of my own obsession with the subject, although I don't clearly remember how it started.
Monday, August 25, 2008
Clearly I badly misestimated some factor: the rate of progress in computing and robotics, the difficulty of adapting these technologies to the array of tasks involved, the tremendous momentum of business as usual once it becomes a matter of money rather than simply conventional practice, or the degree to which others might share the vision that was burning in my brain.
If anything, I underestimated the rate of progress in computing, which has been going gangbusters since the invention of the personal computer, almost without a break. On the other hand, I probably overestimated the rate of progress in robotics. There's been quite a bit, but we're not yet to the point where you can assemble a complete machine for practically any purpose from readily available parts in stock; that time is still coming, but it isn't here yet.
I think I'm a realist about business momentum. I understand the deep conservatism that guides most investment, and the heavily conventional nature of most marketing types, allowing for only incremental change. No surprises there.
What's left is the difficulty of adapting technology and the degree to which others might comprehend and share my vision, two factors I believe to be connected in a sort of chicken-egg (which comes first) relationship.
It's easier to imagine a field being managed by robotic machinery if you have an example of such a machine sitting in front of you. On the other hand it's easier to think about building such a machine if you have a clear idea of what all it's supposed to be able to do, and how fast it will have to work to succeed, with what safeguards - basic design parameters.
Lacking the means to contribute much in the way of machine design, I've concentrated on elaborating and pushing the vision, hoping others better positioned to work on the hardware might become interested. I've also made a couple of false starts in the direction of working to build a community of experimenters, and continue to mull over how best to go about this.
So, for the time being, what you can expect from this blog is further exploration of the vision, and a lot less of the sort of navel-gazing found in this and previous posts.
When there's news to share regarding the development of a community, I'll post it here. Until then, welcome to my dream...
Saturday, March 22, 2008
This arrangement allows the positioning of the active components over any portion of a strip of land as wide as the machine's span and of indefinite length, while confining its wheels to narrow, widely spaced tracks, which can be graveled to mitigate damage.
Aside from the suspended components, it might be thought of as a vehicle with very wide track and relatively short wheelbase.
While such a machine might weigh as much as a conventional tractor, that weight would largely be relatively inexpensive extruded or rolled materials, welded together, as opposed to cast or forged parts with machined surfaces.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
In the context of agriculture and the potential for applying robotic technology to its improvement, this principle applies at least two ways.
The first of these, because it is happening regardless of anything else, is how agriculture has been changing over recent decades, and how the human culture of farming, rural society and the rural landscape, the robustness or fragility of the crops themselves, soil fertility, and biodiversity have changed as a result.
This is something of a mixed bag. For example, on the one hand you have a proliferation of poisonous substances used to control various pest species, but on the other you have the growing popularity of Integrated Pest Management, which uses them sparingly. And while some of the practices which became ubiquitous in the wake of the dust bowl have since become less common, the rising cost of fuel works in favor of lighter tillage, leaving some stubble, which helps control erosion.
Nevertheless, this situation looks rather bleak overall, particularly given the heavy dependence of agriculture on fuel and other products derived from petroleum, and a comparison between ourselves and the frog in the gradually warming water is a bit too apropos.
The other way in which the slow accumulation of change applies is in the development of the various tools and technologies needed for robotics in general to flourish. The array of what's available for use is already good and getting better, if not quite rapidly then at least inexorably, and the more complete the toolkit the more applications become economically feasible, further accelerating the pace of development. At some point that logic is bound to take hold, powerfully and irreversibly, if not this year then maybe next year, or the year after, or maybe it's already begun and just happening slowly enough that it's hard to see.
Here too the boiling frog applies, in that the robotics industry could flourish without contributing anything significant to the improvement of agriculture. It could simply fail to live up to that particular potential, there being no shortage of other, more clearly profitable potentials to be chased after, and plenty of encouragement from DARPA with regard to military applications.
Here we are in the pot, with the general state of agriculture growing ever more tenuous and the industry with the power to transform that situation taking no notice, much less recognizing its all-important role.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Fast forward to 2008.
Take your standard recommendations as to what constitutes a balanced diet; work up a meal plan for a week, and from that a shopping list; go to any supermarket and price out your shopping list. You'll find that some items, basically those that can be grown and harvested without the use of hand cultivation, are relatively inexpensive, and others, those requiring manual labor for at least one step in the process of getting the crop to market, are relatively more expensive. It's all too tempting to just go for the less expensive items and leave out the more expensive items, maybe using vitamin supplements to make up for what's missing, maybe not.
This is a hidden cost of current agricultural practice, that it makes a nutrition-poor survival diet relatively inexpensive, while a really balanced diet is unaffordable to many.
Intensive cultivation using robotic land management could do a lot to make currently expensive produce, and therefore a balanced diet, more affordable.