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Robots Rolling Toward Farm Revolution


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Tractor with laser perception pod

Tractor fitted with a laser perception pod on top of the cab and a control system allowing it to navigate orchards autonomously.

Tony Stenz/CMU

Carnegie Mellon University roboticist Tony Stentz says that in the near future the farming industry may undergo a significant change as robotic farmhands become a reality. Robots could help solve growing concerns in the developed world over a lack of available labor in an industry that relies on seasonal work.

"Automation is becoming a necessity rather than an enhancement," says John Billingsley from Australia's National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture. The technology needed to make robots capable of working outdoors has been significantly advanced through the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge, which encourages researchers to develop autonomous vehicles that can travel through all types of terrain. "If you can deal with an off-road environment you have never seen before then you're well equipped for agriculture," Stentz says.

"We have hit the elbow in the curve for this technology making it big outdoors." He says that during the next few years there will be rapid changes in what robots can practically and affordably provide for farmers. Stentz is experimenting with sending autonomous robots through a Florida orange grove and using a scanner to measure the trees' foliage and count the number of oranges. He says that tree-reading machines could record data more often and more thoroughly than farmers, providing an early warning of diseases and giving a more accurate yield prediction, which could make chemical and other treatments more effective.

From New Scientist
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