Saturday, December 19, 2009

a patent, its implications, and their implications

The post that initially appeared here has been moved to Lacy Ice + Heat, which is where I meant to put it in the first place.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

precise air-stream control

References to fictional, mystical warriors notwithstanding, this could actually be useful.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

contrasting two robotic developments

The first is an autonomous agricultural robot that you can actually buy, or will be able to soon. It runs on gas and will cost around $100,000 when it becomes available early next year. FHI claims the machine can grow fruit and vegetables independently, although this is difficult to imagine based on the one available photo.

The second is the combination of a robotic hand possessing touch sensitivity and quick, flexible movement with a fast vision system, allowing some rather amazing manipulations of objects (check out the video!).

Of the two, the latter provides me far more hope for the future of robotic land management. A pair of hands like that, mounted on comparably quick arms, themselves mounted on a mobile platform, could be expected to cover every square foot of a several acre plot, every day, performing mechanical operations like planting, weeding, pruning, and harvesting. This represents a significant head start on the necessary hardware.

It's becoming clear that the hardware development will pretty much take care of itself, as basic abilities like this are developed and combined. The software may require more focused effort; probably will.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Le Petit Prince takes attentiveness to an extreme

Are your plants suffering from lack of attention? Perhaps this little robot is what you need. Unfortunately, you'll need a few thousand of them if you plan to do any serious gardening.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Saturday, July 25, 2009

cultibotics as a quality of life issue

Your typical farm raises at most a few crops, frequently only one. Because it's what I know, and because it's in practically every processed food you can buy, let's take wheat as an example.

Wheat comes in two main growing patterns, winter and spring. Winter wheat is planted in early fall, where winters are relatively mild, grows to a lawn-like few inches in height before winter, and then resumes growing as winter recedes, and is ready for harvest in late spring or early summer. Spring wheat is planted in late winter or early spring and is ready for harvest in late summer or early fall. Either way the ground looks much like a disaster zone between harvest and replanting, especially with old-school tillage which begins with plowing under the stubble from the last crop, and, like most disaster zones, it's a prolific source of dust. To live in wheat country is to live with a landscape in this mutilated condition several months out of each year.

The fault isn't so much with the technology in use (aside from the choice of tillage regimes), but is rather a result of monoculture, the planting of a single crop year after year. Even using standard tillage practices, something as simple as a crop rotation system might have wheat harvest immediately followed by the planting of something else, clover for instance. However, much of wheat country gets insufficient rainfall to support more than one crop per year. In fact, without irrigation, one crop every two years is more common on the high plains, meaning that even during the height of growing season half the land under cultivation continues to look desolate and contribute to the dust-load in the lower atmosphere, at the cost of some of its own fertility.

Nothing about the equipment in common use precludes crop rotations, and row cropping systems can manage two, or even three crops in the ground at the same time, but three is about the limit. Using conventional methods, intermixing a dozen or more species, other than for pasture or hay, is unthinkable, no matter what benefit might result. So is continuous cropping unthinkable. You can grow pumpkins among the corn stalks in the fall and snow peas climbing up them in the early spring, but sooner or later you'll need to turn under the debris, if not to prepare a seed bed for more corn then to keep the thistles in check.

For continuous cropping, you need more deft handling of soil and plant materials than implements pulled by tractors can provide; you need something more like what a gardener does.

With continuous cropping there's always something in the ground to break the wind and keep down the dust, and while the field will never have the look of ripe crop of monoculture wheat, all ready for harvest at once, it will also never look like a desert, nor, with proper handling, like a thistle patch.

What you get is a landscape that's more varied throughout the year, but not so starkly punctuated by season.

What you also get is more variety in production. Instead of wheat, wheat, and more wheat you might also get squash, beans, onions, peppers, millet, and so forth, as well as perennials like sand plums, apricots, currents, and mulberries, all the makings of a healthy diet.

The key to making this possible is dexterity combined with attention to detail, such as could only, until recently, be supplied by people. The key to making it practical is robotics.

To the extent there is any close connection between the quality of land management and the quality of life that land supports, it follows that the quality of life achievable through the best available land management method will be better than what can be achieved without it.

You cannot economically duplicate, by any other means, the quality of land management that is achievable through the appropriate application of robotics.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

of thresholds and the forces that drive change

"But why would you want to turn farming over to machines?"

Ahem! Farming has been conducted primarily by machines for going on a hundred years, at least in the United States. I want to substitute intelligent machines that proceed carefully and work continuously for big, dumb machines that are designed to get the job over with as quickly as possible, and at the same time move farmers out of their roles as machine operators and into the roles of technician and manager.

The threshold that still looms large but is shrinking with every passing week, primarily due to advancements in military robotics, is autonomous operation, making it possible for one person to manage many machines simultaneously, instead of being symbiotically fused to one for the entire time it is in operation.

At some point in the not too distant future, it will become practical to turn tractors loose under robotic control, but by the time that happens that same threshold will already have been crossed by less powerful, less dangerous machines. Moreover, once tractors arrive at autonomous operation there's not much to drive further development. Sure, you can push efficiency higher and accident rates lower, but it's still the same old thing.

With the sort of detail-oriented systems I've been attempting to imagine and describe, that threshold of autonomous operation is just the beginning, the spark that lights the rocket. Knowledge that would be of no use to autonomous tractors, because they'd still just be pulling implements around a field, could improve the performance of machines using a horticultural approach and improve the productivity of land they tend, and much of that knowledge they would be able to discern for themselves, through experience (statistics applied to crop measurements) and sharing information with each other.

For every increment in sensory capability, processing power, mechanical versatility, and software sophistication there would be a potential payoff, in machine performance, productivity, and/or the quality of the overall result.

That's what a growth market looks like.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

discussion of military robotics

The Inkwell discussion mentioned below is now underway.

See Inkwell.vue topic #352 on The WELL.


For two weeks, beginning April 29th, Brookings Institution Senior Fellow P.W. Singer will be on hand in The WELL's Inkwell.vue conference to discuss his latest book "Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century".

Obligatory caveat: while military robotics is a far cry from what this blog is about, some of the technologies developed for military robots are likely to prove useful in the more mundane context of managing productive land. But while cultibotics remains a dream of what might be, the development and deployment of military robotics is happening now, posing serious concerns for the near future as the machines become both more autonomous and more lethal. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics are nowhere to be seen.

Caveat to the caveat: having now read most of the book, I realize there are other, far more realistic, reasons for concern than the extremely unlikely Skynet-gone-bats scenario. Singer is a subtle thinker, and I'm anticipating an interesting discussion.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

convertible manipulator/sheer

A manipulator with four or six ‘fingers’ positioned symmetrically around a central axis might also serve as a sheer, able to snip along two or three planes. The cutting edges would be the edges of basal segments to which the fingers were mounted. Four-fingered manipulators would be mechanically simpler and more robust. Six-fingered manipulators would have sharper edges and therefore make more efficient sheers. In either case, to act as a sheer the fingers would have to reach past the object (stem) to be cut, so it could be grasped by their basal segments.

An alternative to the above would be a four fingered manipulator with basal segments angled at less than 90 degrees, possibly as little as 45 degrees, with space between them, and the ability to rotate into that space. In the case of 45 degree angled basal segments, each finger should be able to rotate 22.5 degrees in either direction from its rest position. This would result in both a manipulator with two sets of opposed digits, 45 degrees apart on either side, arranged along either of two axes, as well as a more effective sheer.

The basal segments to which I've been referring would appear, from anywhere along the central axis, like simple blocks of metal presenting a distinct edge. However, from the outside, with those edges hidden, they would look more like the links in multi-jointed digits that they would also be.

keeping dust off optics

Whether lenses for machine vision, or lenses and mirrors to direct laser light, the need to keep dust off their surfaces should be obvious.

One likely solution is to surround the lens with a doughnut-shaped (toroidal) trough, with an outer opening at least as large as the lens itself. Compressed, filtered air would be introduced tangentially, through a jet positioned along the trough's widest circumference, causing the air within to spin. The rate of spin would increase as the air climbed the inner wall of the trough toward the opening, and continue to increase approaching the axis of the lens.

There would also be a net movement of air outward through the opening. Once outside the confines of the trough, air would spray outward in an approximate disk shape. Any dust that happened to come close to the opening would be pushed off by this disk-shaped, laminar outflow, with essentially no chance that it would end up inside where it might come in contact with the lens.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

valuing the work done

So long as the alternative to the use of robotics remains human labor, the value of the work a machine does can be measured in terms of what it would cost to pay people to do the same work, plus the greater cost of transportation if that work is to be performed in a location which is remote from the market where the produce will be sold.

But considering only the labor component for the moment, if a machine is capable of working at approximately the same speed as a human worker, but can do so continuously, day and night, assuming the human is working a forty hour week, the machine can perform the work of four human workers, with eight hours per week left over for maintenance. If one person, working forty hours per week, can intensively manage one hectare, then a machine working at the same speed can manage four hectares (nearly ten acres) with the same degree of intensity.

If and when cultibots begin to become common, the comparison with a human performing the same sort of work will become less relevant, and the capacity of such a machine will most likely be measured in terms of the amount of land it can effectively manage according to a particular pattern, which requires a large subset of the range of operations such a machine might be able to perform. (As with any benchmark, such measurements will favor machines that are optimized for them.) And the value of that work will be the value of the produce at market, minus the cost of transportation to get it there, which, as now, will be largely a matter of what the human owner chooses to grow, and whether the weather works for or against them.

Given that such a machine might also be programmed to make a little room for native plants and animals, and that doing so would constitute a social benefit, the value of the work done might include modest subsidies for the land set aside in this way, probably in return for verifiable data that could be spot-checked for accuracy. At some point, once agricultural practices based on traction (pulling implements across the surface of a field) had become uncommon, the subsidies might be replaced with a simple requirement that a percentage of productive land, distributed in a manner designed to favor threatened and endangered species, be made available for native habitat. At that point, those still using tractors would need to bring in surveyors to stack off the parts of their fields they couldn't till, whereas those using cultibots would simply need to include the proper programming.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

robots under glass, the threshold of minimal investment

For the time being, it probably doesn't make good economic sense to dedicate sophisticated machinery to managing a patch of ground that's unprotected from the elements, when it might just as well be working inside a greenhouse, where it actually can operate 24/365, and where it won't need the structural strength to stand up to gale force winds.

On the other hand, greenhouses are most useful when combined with regular gardens and used seasonally to start plants earlier than they could be started in the open, or when the shade from other plants would impede sprouting or development. Even a relatively frail machine, better adapted to spending its time indoors, might venture out in calm weather, long enough to set out plants it had started in trays and peat pots, provided it was sufficiently mobile.

This scenario, a machine that does the tedious work of planting seeds and tending plants in a greenhouse, moving them out to open ground when conditions allow, is what might be termed a natural starting point for the development of such machines, a more limited, more surmountable engineering problem than a machine intended to perform all aspects of land management. A machine applied this way need not be able to perform absolutely every horticultural operation to be useful, nor would it need to be able to deal with a completely uncontrolled environment.

It's very likely that there are other such natural starting points for the development of cultibots. Collectively, these natural starting points represent a threshold of minimal investment before a return on that investment can be forthcoming. Once that threshold has been crossed, at any point, incremental improvements should be adequate to insure that machines which can handle the whole job are eventually produced, and the return on that initial investment could be very sweet indeed.

There's another, equally important threshold to consider, the automation of the production of these machines. So long as they are hand-crafted prototypes, they have no chance of competing economically with hand labor, or, as is more likely, with the transportation of produce from milder climates. Mass production will get them into the game.

Self-reconfiguring factories that not only build such machines but which can also replicate, by building the equipment for new factories and the machines to assemble them, will drive down the cost to the point where the logic behind it all becomes inexorable, but by that point we're no longer talking only about machines for land management, and there had best be very solid safeguards in place. The point of mentioning this scenario in the context of cultibotics at all is that land management may be the one application of robotics where the size of the potential market could justify the investment to cross this threshold. Once crossed, of course, the technology would be generally applicable.