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Commercial farms of the future may bestaffed by robots that will identify, sprayand pick individual pieces of produce fromplants, even when their targets are grapes,peppers and apples that are as green as theleaves that surround them.As scientists in Israel and Europe getcloser to this goal, experts say the workhas a number of potential benefits. Au-tonomous agricultural robots could pro-tect human workers from the harmfuleffects of handling chemicals by hand.And through a system of highly selectivespraying, robots could reduce a farm’s useof pesticides by up to 80 percent.Robots could also offer a timely sup-ply of labor in many places, where theresimply aren’t enough itinerant workersavailable at the right times in the harvest-ing cycle. Meanwhile, attempts to createrobots that can see, grasp and learn couldend up having widespread applications inmedicine, video games and more.And while scientists have been work-ing to develop robots for agricultural la-bor for more than 20 years, a new projectis taking a more cerebral approach. Thegoal is to teach computers to see like hu-mans do and to get better at their jobs asthey work and learn.“The technology is ready, and now wecan start seeing this penetrating into themarket,” said Yael Edan, an engineer androbotics researcher at Ben-Gurion Univer-sity of the Negev in Israel. “I would saythere will definitely be robots out there infive years -- maybe not be on every farm,and maybe not for every farmer. I thinknow the time is there.”Modern commercial farms are alreadyfull of tractors with automated steeringand machines that can milk cows and tillsoil. But zeroing in on individual fruits orvegetables is a much more challengingtask. That’s because the outdoor environ-ment is unpredictable and ever-changing.Each piece of produce, for example,has a unique shape, size, color and ori-entation, which means that a computercan’t be programmed to simply searchfor a specific image. Shadows and lightconditions change throughout the dayand night, as well, making an individualobject look different under various condi-tions. And green fruits and vegetables canlook much like the leafy bushes or vinesthey grow on.To boost a computer’s ability to findorder within the relative chaos of an agri-cultural environment, Edan’s team, alongwith a European consortium of colleagues,is working on intelligent sensing systems.One strategy involves multi-spectral cam-eras that analyze wavelengths of lightbouncing off of objects. The idea is tofind a consistent pattern that would tellthe robot when it is seeing, say, a pepper,no matter whether that pepper was right-side-up or upside-down.Along with other sensors and pro-grams, the researchers aim to create a ro-botic “brain” that could then learn from itsmistakes and improve as it works.“We will have an algorithm that willsee simple shapes. And when food is par-tially covered by leaves, it will say: ‘OK,let’s not use the full-shape algorithm. Butsince we only see part of the food, let’stry to complete the contour,’” Edan said.What separates her team’s work from pre-vious projects, she said, is that it incorpo-rates both features of human vision andcomputer learning.So far, computers can easily find be-tween 80 and 85 percent of fruits on aplant, the group has found. But theirbenchmark is 90 percent, and many farm-ers say they wouldn’t use a robot unless ithit an accuracy rate of 99 percent.Once a robot identifies its targets, theengineers are also trying to design a grasp-ing tool that will grab produce in the rightplace and pick it with the right amount of firmness. To that end, they are studyinghuman movements and using another setof algorithms to try to imitate what comesso naturally to human hands.As the project, which began last Octo-ber, ramps up and begins to produce re-sults, agricultural robots could eventuallyhelp farmers around the world, includingin the United States, said Bernie Engel, anagricultural engineer at Purdue Universityin West Lafayette, Ind.“In many cases, there are challengesfinding labor to do some of the harvest-ing of strawberries and other fruits andvegetables,” Engel said. “It’s hard work.There’s a timeliness factor, where youcan’t wait a week. You need lots of laborfor fairly short periods of time, which cre-ates real challenges for keeping peopleemployed in a sustainable manner.”“If you think about the global popula-tion at this point and the need to feed agrowing population,” he added, “we haveto get more efficient at the harvesting andproduction of these crops.”
Courtesy of Discovery News.
Robots on the farm