When was the last time you set foot on a farm? If you’re a city or suburb dweller, it’s probably been quite a while. People in both the developed and developing countries largely take the food available in their grocery stores for granted today. Drive down to your local Super Target or Farmer’s Market and you’re presented with a seemingly endless supply of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Unless you’re in a poor country, like Nepal for example, where many families in villages own small pieces of land where they plant, maintain and harvest their crops manually, agriculture has largely been “mechanized.” It takes far fewer people to tend to a larger farm than even a few decades ago.
In the late 1800s, almost 50% of Americans used to be farmers. In 2000, that fell to 2% as most of us found ourselves behind a keyboard rather than holding a shovel. Most of the farming jobs today deal with the delicate task of plucking the fruits and vegetables off the trees and shrubs. Robots have never been able to do that job anywhere close to as well as a human being could — but that’s all about to change.
I knew that farming has changed considerably since the turn of the century, but while reading Martin Ford’s book Rise of the Robots, I was blown away at how robotics startups are ready to take over the remaining few tasks that humans still handle on the farm.
Vision Robotics in San Diego, California is developing an octopus-like orange harvesting machine. It’s a fascinating process that takes places in two steps. First, the robot uses three-dimensional machine vision to “take a picture” of an orange tree and remembers where each fruit is. Then, it directs it’s 8 robotic arms (aka, tentacles), which rapidly harvests the oranges.
If you’re curious about the technology that’s driving this accomplishment, watch this video from 2005 with a post-doc researcher at University of Florida. We’ve gone from a researcher’s preliminary prototype to a commercial product in 12 years.
This Boston startup isn’t as “cool” as Vision Robotics but will save nurseries (and eventually all farms) a lot of money. As you can imagine nurseries and greenhouses currently require the human touch to take care of the plants, but Harvest Automation robots want to change that. Eliminating human labor from these operations can save 30–40% of the total costs to run a nursery or greenhouse today.
Japanese Robotics Company
Did you know that there is a robot in Japan which delicately pick strawberries from the plant?! It uses sophisticated machine learning algorithms to only pick the strawberries that are ripe based on the subtle color differences. It’s able to pick a strawberry every eight seconds, doesn’t get tired, and can work around the clock.
Australian Center for Field Robotics (ACFR)
You wouldn’t expect Australia and it’s mostly arid landscape to aspire growing the food needed to feed not just Australia, but Asia’s booming population as well. But that’s exactly what ACFR at the University of Sydney has in mind.
Australia has a relatively small population and doesn’t have access to the large pool of laborers needed during harvesting season. It envisions a fleet of robots crawling through Australia’s unrelenting and largely uninhabited terrain to analyze soil samples. When they find some land that’s conducive for a particular plant, it will inject the exact amount of water, pesticide or fertilizer into the soil for that plant.
It’s an ingenious idea for a country with large swaths of empty land, few people to work in the farms and save money by not wasting resources on land that’s not arable.
A Deeper Conversation on Robotics and AI
Next weekend in Mumbai, Neil Jacobstein, is giving a talk on Robotics and AI at the SingularityU India Summit. When companies like Ford, Boeing and Applied Materials or government agencies like DARPA, NASA and EPA need a helping hand on AI, they call him.
Neil also serves as the Chair of Artificial Intelligence & Robotics at Singularity University. If all the stars align, I will get to sit down with him to talk about AI and robotics at the summit, which is organized in collaboration with INK and Deloitte. In addition to questions about the robotics startups mentioned above, I’m particularly curious to ask him about the impact of AI and robotics in a country like India where “low population” is hardly a concern, and how he envisions these technologies will disrupt entire professions. If you’re in Mumbai or can travel there on April 7-8, don’t miss out and I’ll see you there.
Robotics is one of the several “exponential technologies” that SingularityU faculty and guests will speak about at the conference. As with all exponential technologies, robotics too have been around for a very long time, and it’s impact of the world is likely to be stark and seem like it comes out of nowhere, unless you’re paying attention. As Peter Diamandis and Marcus Shingles of SingularityU and XPRIZE say, “Uber yourself, before you get Kodaked.”
P.S. Are you working on a robotics or artificial intelligence startup and want to be featured on GoMainstrm? Sharpen your pencil, write your pitches and send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.