Friday, December 03, 2010

go have a look at

Having discovered the Robots Podcast, and its associated website, I no longer feel such a need to continue posting here. I have made my point as well as I can expect to in words alone. If I am to continue to exert effort towards the vision outlined here, it should be directed towards the development of hardware and/or software.

That's not to say that I'm closing this blog or will never post here again, but it can no longer be the central focus of my efforts with regard to robotics, and any further posts are likely to be mere pointers to something interesting elsewhere, without much in the way of new content.

It's a "brave new world" out there, with many encouraging (and a few worrisome) things happening. Check out the Robots Podcast website and get started with bringing yourself up to speed with what's happening in the field.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

DARPA consortium casts a wide net

A consortium of U.S. government agencies, lead by DARPA, has jointly issued a solicitation for small business proposals...

Joint-Agency SBIR Funding Opportunity Announcement

The HTML title element for that page contains the following:
"PAR-10-279: Robotics Technology Development and Deployment [RTD2] (R43)"

The participating agencies are:
National Institutes of Health (NIH)
U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), (
National Science Foundation (NSF) (
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

Each agency's interest in the initiative is described within the document.

I noted the presence of USDA on the list with extreme interest, as you might expect, and am pleased to report that an effort to develop the sort of system I've previously described (replacing traction with dextrous manipulation) should be fundable within their guidelines.

Found on Danger Room

Reposted from

Monday, August 16, 2010

reposted (with edits) from the RobotsPodcast forum

When I imagine robots tending land, it's nearly always machines that are supported from above, on a beam that itself is supported by wheels running either on rails or in troughs that double as a delivery system for water, or on long legs that always only step on particular spots, so as to avoid compressing most of the surface, but in any case a machine capable of lifting even a record setting pumpkin or of uprooting small shrubs.

My interest is in improving agricultural practice, and I think robotics presents the approach most likely to serve that end, really the only approach with any chance of widespread success. (For me, robotic tractors are merely annoying, except as they help generate experience with autonomous navigation in an uncontrolled environment, applicable to other systems.)

Conversely, agriculture may be the largest potential market for robotics, one so large that it could drive the development of self-reconfiguring and self-reproducing robotic factories. This depends on the total cost of operation using robotic devices coming in below the total cost of operation using conventional methods, which includes increasingly expensive fuel for tractors (which might be replaced by solar-generated electricity in the robotic scenario).

I'm very encouraged to see robotics finally gathering momentum, and have hope that some of that momentum will find its way towards radically transforming agriculture.

Monday, August 02, 2010

a plant positioning system based on suspension

Something which could be accomplished through robotics that couldn't economically be accomplished using human labor would be maximizing the utilization of a very limited surface area (and the sunlight it receives), by repositioning plants to maintain ideal spacing as they grow, and as some are removed while others remain and new plants (or seeds) inserted among those already there.

This can be done using pots of various sizes on a platform, repotting plants as necessary. It might also be done using a grid or honeycomb-like support frame, each cell of which is large enough to accommodate a single mature plant of the largest variety to be grown this way, but which is also divisible into smaller cells - rectangular in the case of a grid, or a combination of hexagonal and triangular subsections in the case of a honeycomb - for seedlings and smaller plants.

This approach, because it would mean discrete positioning, would lend itself to automation. It would also position the soil surface at the same level for all plants, rather than having smaller pots hidden and shaded by larger pots. While something resembling repotting would still be needed, because a suspension system can have a soft underside, such as a loosely woven fabric pouch, made of biodegradable fiber, hung from a rigid frame, that repotting could be nothing more traumatic for the plant than positioning a smaller frame within a larger one and filling in between with potting soil, leaving the pouch in place to decompose while the plant's roots grow through it, a procedure which could be accomplished robotically, without the need for high precision. This can be repeated until the stem of the plant grows to the point that it no longer fits through the smallest subframe initially employed, which usually won't happen.

Like pots on a platform, when a plant is removed from the framework, the soil is typically removed with it, which can help with the control of pests and diseases. (Used soil, containing whatever is left of the pouches, which can simply be cut loose from the frames pieces, can be sanitized by inclusion in compost, which can hold a temperature between 120 and 160 degrees F, for several days, the peak temperature depending on the scale of the compost operation as well as on the initial ingredients and how it's managed.)

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

the pursuit of collaboration

Two heads are generally better than one, and while that truism doesn't necessarily scale very well, it can and often does in the open source software movement.

Willow Garage is out to make it happen in robotics.

They not only have developed a robot, the PR2, with sufficient dexterity to fold towels, and given eleven of these to research institutions around the world, but they've also released "an open-source, meta-operating system" for robots, called ROS, which you can download and use for free.

This is a great beginning, and could prove to be the seed of what develops into a standard platform.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

rail & gantry bot

This is actually a 3D printer, but replace the print head with a couple of general purpose robotic arms and you've got the makings of a gardening robot.

Monday, March 01, 2010

the empowerment of small-scale industrial designers

This Wired video discusses how easy it has become to get ahold of custom parts. Not mentioned, but quite obviously working away, is a 3D printer, building up a bust using deposited material.

This ability to get custom parts economically means that individuals and small companies can go where only large companies could realistically go before, and should infuse new energy into the culture of small scale experimentation, which was already showing renewed signs of life over the last decade or so.

This is very hopeful!

Saturday, January 30, 2010

the application of "elegance" to machine behavior

We all have some idea of what "elegance" means, whether our notion of it is tied up with silky evening dresses, polished wood and brass, chandeliers and stained glass windows, exotic carpets, and expensive sports cars, or with youthful bodies that are tanned and fit, knowing the local language well enough to use it sparingly with assurance, being appropriately dressed for the weather, good posture, fluid movement, a varied diet of moderate proportions, giving every task as much time as it requires, and so on.

Applying the notion of elegance to machine behavior may resonate for some and not for others. What could it possibly mean, elegant machine behavior, wouldn't that be a contradiction in terms?

In this piece in another blog, I suggest that Apple should get into robotics, partly because to fail to do so would be to leave the largest looming growth market to others, and partly because I believe the company has something to contribute, something relating to elegance. I think Apple would set a high standard for machine behavior, and then exceed it, providing a tangible example of first-order elegance.

I say "first-order elegance" to suggest that there is also a "second-order" or "meta-elegance" that looks beyond present behavior to its ultimate effects. For example, formality may appear elegant, but if children are subjected to it all the time they may fail to develop emotional intelligence, an inelegant result.

As applied here, it is second-order or meta-elegance that is more important. It matters far less whether machines that tend land appear deft in their actions than whether the result of those actions appears more garden or desert-like. That's not to say that first-order elegance is unimportant. Efficient movement, of the entire machine and of its parts, is an important aspect of cost-effectiveness, but efficiently producing a undesirable result gains nothing.

I believe that second-order elegance is achievable in this context, that machines can be programmed to understand complex living systems and nurture them, while raising food and fiber for market in their midst. If I didn't believe that I would never have bothered trying to explain this vision of a greener future founded on robotics.