THE AGROBOTS ARE COMING!
Do you harbour a fantasy of taking a year off, and travelling the world, perhaps funding yourself by fruit picking? If so, then you might need to think again. Farmers might not need you! Nicole Buckler reports.
Robots are on the march into the last bastion of labour intensive industry – farming and horticulture. Immigrant workers and farm hands may no longer be required if technology has anything to do with it. Farm gadgets, called ‘agrobots’ are being developed at breakneck speed. And they are going to take the jobs of humans without quibble. This is because agrobots can work 24 hours a day, don’t need a pension, and don’t need coffee breaks. They could change the face of farming as we know it. Although, they aren’t much fun to drink with on a Friday night. Here are some examples of things to come.
MUSHROOM PICKING ROBOT
Researchers from the University of Warwick’s horticultural arm are working on a suite of robots and automated systems which could vastly reduce the labour costs of farmers and growers. One of them is a robotic mushroom picker. The robot uses a camera to spot and select only mushrooms of the exact size required for picking, achieving levels of accuracy far in excess of human labour. The mushrooms are then picked by a suction cup on the end of a robotic arm. Whilst the speed of picking is currently just over half that of a human – the mushrooms and the robot can be set to pick 24 hours a day right through the night. And it definitely isn’t allowed to have a smoke break! And it will not faff around in the loo for 25 minutes or gossip at the water cooler. The researchers also hope to increase the speed of picking to much closer to that of a human worker. Awesome.
INFLATABLE CONVEYOR BELT
Farm tech company Aeropick have developed a revolutionary group of inflatable aids to harvesting which provide huge savings on labour costs. The inflatable conveyor system can be driven into an open field or covered growing area. Within minutes up to 100 metres of powered conveyor belt can be deployed allowing crops to be processed at high speed straight to cool storage, or washing, or simply sorted and graded while still in the field. The inflatable conveyor can achieve six man hours work in 10 minutes. A 100-metre belt could handle the work of more than 100 human pickers. All this means fresher, crunchier veges, so put down that chocolate bar and reach for some celery!
ROBOT GRASS CUTTER
Mowing the lawn is a drudge but for growers, farmers, even golf course owners, with large amounts of grass land it’s a massive problem. You can either buy 234 goats or buy a tractor requiring a skilled employee to manage your pastures, or there is a new alternative. Researchers in the Warwick Manufacturing Group are coming to the rescue. They are developing a new method which can allow a farmer or grower to deploy multiple robotic grass cutting machines at the same time all under the supervision of just a single employee. The device uses data sensors attached to the mower, to autonomously travel across fields working with other robotic mowers ensure that the field is mowed as quickly as possible. The smell of cut grass is nice, but the smell of grass cut by a robot could be even better!
Conventional orange harvesting is hard graft. Pickers are swinging from the tops of trees like monkeys, with huge sacks on their backs disturbing their centre of gravity. It’s not safe and it’s probably not fun. However, a company called Vision Robotics have come up with an agrobot that will sense where the orange is on the tree, and pick it, ready for juice! Stereoscopic cameras create a virtual 3D image of the entire orange tree. The positions and sizes of the oranges are stored and passed onto the harvesting arms. Immediately following the scanning process, eight long reticulating arms are maneuvered to gracefully pick each orange quickly, efficiently, and economically. Future robots like these will be able to operate effectively in very complex environments and at speeds of up to 10 – 20 miles per hour. Which doesn’t just mean juicer juice, but it will be juice without a human tumbling from the treetops!
At the end of each season, workers go out into a vineyard and meticulously trim every single vine. They have to do this at a precise angle and location in order prepare the vines to grow the best grapes the following year. It’s probably rather boring and hot work, enough to drive pruners to a sneaky glass of vino. But now Vision Robotics have developed an agrobot that will prune the vines. It will make your own glass of vino so much more enjoyable, knowing that no one has nicked their fingers in their pruning process. Where all the displaced workers will find their next lot of seasonal work is up in the air, it will be interesting to see if they will find work in new fields (like robotics!).
Do you have a new farm gadget? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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