For those who’ve ever wondered why certain fruits and vegetables are so expensively priced at their local grocery store, the reason is a relatively simple one. More often than not, prices are high because there is a significant cost associated with getting it from the farm to the store. This distinction is generally found in produce that is cultivated by hand – the high cost of using human pickers are passed along first to the grocery store and then to the consumer. Contrary to what one might expect, the high price of these goods is not due to any particular skill the cultivator may possess (something which, if it were true, would make paying more for these products a little easier to swallow). Rather, it’s simply due to the fact that there is no equipment gentle enough that is capable of cultivation of certain fragile goods with finesse – until now.
Farmers have long benefitted from the use of technology to produce larger and larger yields with fewer and fewer farmhands. In fact, many crops are perfectly suited for the autonomous mechanical age, amenable to the use of heavy-duty farm equipment to perform everything from the planting of seeds to the spreading of fertilizer and cultivation. Scanning technology is even used to ensure food quality at a rate that simply could not be matched by the human eye.
It seems that technology is further strengthening its finger hold in the agriculture sector, a fact that may help drive the price of some products down, while helping to reduce hunger in impoverished regions.
A Gentle Grasp Is All it Takes
One of the greatest hurdles that have prevented robotics from being used universally in farming applications has to do with the fragility of an item or the level of difficulty associated with its cultivation
A recent prototype developed by the Israeli robotics firm FFRobotics, has made the labour intensive process of cultivating apples one that can be completed almost completely autonomously. Using a robotic arm designed to grip, twist, and deposit, the harvester-mounted device can identify which apples are ready to be plucked using, of all things, Xbox kinect technology. Additionally, this ingenious device can be programmed with an algorithm capable of identifying diseased fruit – adding yet another layer for functionality. Having the ability to not only tirelessly pick healthy fruit at a speed that cannot be maintained by human workers is one thing; it’s quite another to be able to use the same device (with a slightly different software build) to also ensure the health of the crop by removing items carrying disease.
Not to be outdone, Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale De Lausanne (EPFL) are developing a lightweight electrostatic gripper that is so gentle that it can grip an egg without crushing it. Though the task itself seems simple, this wildly variable level of fine touch has eluded robotic manufacturers for some time. The gripper itself is comprised of two electrode “flaps” made of stretchable silicon that, when an electrical current is applied, creates what is known as electro-adhesion which firmly yet gently grips the object.
As impressive as both of these technologies sound, they’ll both likely need several years of PLC programming and prototyping experience in order for them to be used effectively as part of a larger, autonomous cultivation system. Having said that, it’s easy to see just how much opportunity there is in the agriculture sector in the not too distant future for those with a background as a robotics or PLC technician.
While these types of technology may finally end conventional farming as we know it, it’s an imperative step in the right direction to ensure the earth’s rising population has enough to eat. Many countries are already seeing a sharp decline in the number of young people that are entering into farming. In fact, many young people born and raised in rural communities are seeking new and exciting opportunities in larger metropolitan areas rather than continue to work on the family farm.
Automated farming can certainly help fill the labour void, but it can do a lot more than that. For those with a passion in robotics, automated farming provides an interesting platform from which to ply their trade, drawing much needed youthful blood into an aging industry.