April 11, 2009

Robots With A Green Thumb ““ The Future Of Gardening?

Agriculture, one of the oldest tasks known to mankind and a hallmark of every civilized society, may be standing on the brink of a yet another revolution.  First there was irrigation.  Much later came the cotton gin and the tractor.  Now there is the robot.

As part of a two-semester course on robotics, a group of undergraduates students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was charged with developing a set of robots capable of watering, pollinating and even harvesting cherry tomato plants.

In the past century, numerous efforts have been made to incorporate robotics into the field of agriculture.  While many aspects of farming have become highly mechanized over the years, robots have not found much of a niche in the industry, due largely to their prohibitively expensive costs and their inability to tackle some of the more intricate tasks. 

Though inventors have attempted to design robots to selectively trim fruit trees and delicately pick asparagus, few of them have yet been successful.

One of the major problems has been their inability to perform those jobs requiring the dexterity and ability to handle complex and unexpected situations that have been traditionally done by humans, says Tony Grift of the Department of Agriculture and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois.

Professor Daniela Rus and post-graduate assistant Nikolaus Corell of the Distributed Robotics Lab at MIT are trying to change that with smarter, more efficient robots and some of the brightest young minds from around the world.

In spring 2008 Dr. Rus began the first part of her course on robotics in which students learn the basic principles of building and programming robots.  By the start of the second semester, Rus and Corell were encouraging students to start putting their newly acquired knowledge to work by building robots capable of handling practical tasks.

According to Rus, students were to construct a "precision garden," in which robots are able to handle all of the basic jobs associated with caring tending to the plants.

The 12 students then divided themselves up into several smaller groups, each responsible for tackling specific problems, such as designing a system of communication between robots and plants, and devising a method of harvesting the fruit. 

The result was a small crew of $3,000 robots and four healthy and productive tomato plants.

Each of the robots is connected to a central computer system and comes equipped with a small watering pump, a robotic arm and a camera for monitoring the growth of the tomatoes.  Using a set of sensors in their pots, the plants are able to communicate information about their soil conditions to the robots, letting them know when they need water or fertilizer.

The robots, however, don't just passively take orders from the plants.  Using their cameras and a program that allows them to visually gauge the growth of the tomatoes, they keep inventory, monitor growth, and even harvest tomatoes when they're ripe.  Similar technology also lets them know when it's time to pollinate the plants.

Joining together the biological with the robotic was no easy task however.

21-year old computer science major Huan Liu described with frustration the difficulties the students encountered while trying to design a robotic arm that could pick tomatoes growing in hard to reach places.

"The tomatoes, they come out of nowhere, or just in weird places," she said.

Rus and Cornell's interest and optimism for the future of robotic gardening is not just a professional curiosity though.

The successful development of similar robots could potentially bring a two-fold advantage to modern agricultural techniques.  Firstly, the specificity with which robots work "“ the ability to deliver nutrients directly to the plant on an as-need basis "“ could greatly reduce the amount of resources and money spent on crop maintenance.  Second, the ability to harvest specialty crops could significantly lower the amount of time and back-breaking labor associated with picking fruits and vegetables

"Agriculture contributes a lot of damage to the land, the soil, the water and environment," Rus explained.  "So if we can figure out a way of using robots and automation to deliver nutrients to plants "“ pesticides, fertilizers, water when it's needed "“ instead of sort of mass spreading them, then we hope we would have an impact on the environment."


Image 2: Luke Johnson and Sam Dyar program an autonomous robotic arm. Photo: Jason Dorfman


On the Net: