Whether conducted by an industrial farming outfit or a small, independent farmer, agriculture is all about yield. Per-acre production makes or break the year, and taken at the macro level it impacts global markets and can lead to humanitarian crises. And while agriculture already happens at the field-by-field level, David Dorhout wants to make agriculture even more precise. Think: plant-by-plant farming, optimized on a seed-by-seed basis.
Who can manage such a precise, immense workload? Why, the diminutive hexapod robot named Prospero, of course.
Dorhout currently works in the biotech industry, but his side project and passion for the last few years has been robotics. Built as the test platform for a larger robotic farming system, Prospero is just one of what will eventually become a swarm of planting, tending, and harvesting robots running game theory and swarm behavior algorithms to help optimize every inch of arable space in a given field. Dorhout has launched his own company, Dorhout R&D, to pursue this vision, and he's hoping that as the larger robot revolution unfolds that farmers will once again be at the forefront of technological revolution.
"Looking back at history agriculture seems kind of quaint," Dorhout says. "But I realized growing up around a farm in Iowa that rather than being one of the last industries to adopt technology, agriculture is one of the earliest adopters."
Dorhout points to technologies that we now take for granted--things like the diesel engine, modern statistics, genetic engineering--that trace their origins back to a common impetus: the need to reliably grow more and better food. The ongoing robotics revolution is leaving its mark on agriculture already, as self-driving, GPS-equipped tractors now till land autonomously and other existing farm machinery becomes increasingly computerized and automated. A single human farmer can now maintain well more than 1,000 acres of farmland each year, using bigger and better farm equipment to increase productivity.
But to Dorhout, the simultaneous computerization and intensification of existing farm technologies doesn't make much sense. If you trace the development of agricultural technology along its entire arc, there's always been a focus on increasing the individual farmer's output: bigger tractors mean one human can cover more ground in less time, and huge irrigation apparatuses mean a single farmer can keep huge amounts of plants watered. But the future, Dorhout says, means moving in the exact opposite direction: smaller, smarter, and hands-free.
"What I'm proposing is that you take the piece of machinery and you essentially explode it, so instead of having one piece of machinery you have maybe hundreds--many small robots instead of one big one," Dorhout says. Previously, humans had to direct the machinery, so fewer (and bigger) machines meant fewer humans were needed to operate them. Now, the falling cost of microcomputers means intelligence can be spread across many machines that work both independently and together. Such technology could lead to a new farming paradigm where decisions are made on a plant-by-plant basis rather than acre-by-acre or field-by-field. Such a system could cut waste down to nearly nothing and push yields-per-acre through the roof. Prospero is Dorhout's first step toward this vision.
Prospero is a lone prototype planter robot designed to work with other identical robots in a swarm (Dorhout's formal education happens to center around insect biology and behavior). In order to create something that the average farmer could actually use and service, Dorhout wanted simplicity and low cost. He built Prospero from an off-the-shelf robotics platform called a Boe-Bot packing a Parallax microcontroller--basically a small robot brain that costs something like eight bucks, he says. He wrote an advanced walking program that allows Prospero to move in any direction without turning its body. A sensor array packed into its belly--LEDs, a photo resistor, etc.--and other augmentations like a seed-hopper and a fertilizer spraying apparatus round out its hardware.
The end result is a somewhat awkward but friendly-looking farmbot that can communicate with other robots around it via weak radio signals. It requires no GPS or complex computer vision algorithm--it sees only what is directly beneath it, taking the world in through this very small window. If it detects that there is no seed planted in the soil below (or in the immediate vicinity), it drills a hole down to the optimum depth, deposits a seed, sprays it with just the right preprogrammed amount of fertilizer and nutrients, covers the seed, and then marks the spot with a shot of "paint" that the other robots can detect should they walk over the same patch of soil.
Every robot in the swarm is doing this simultaneously. If a robot passes over an area where a seed is already planted, it keeps moving. If not, it plants. Should a single robot come across a large swath of earth where it detects few seeds have been planted, it can signal others to come help it. If it encounters an area that seems to be already heavily planted, it can tell nearby robots to move away from it. Each robot doesn't have to know the exact position of the others, which cuts down on a lot of the processing and data crunching that can make distributed robotics like this difficult. Yet the entire field gets planted, not necessarily in straight rows but with seed spacing optimized and a minimum of wasted space, fertilizer, and human effort.
"I love these swarm technologies because they are so simple but you can get such complex behaviors," Dorhout says. And because they don't rely on complicated technologies or expensive robotics components, they're something farmers of the very near future could actually use, and even enhance. "They'll adapt it, and that's important," he says. "They're the original hackers. They'll make it better."
Prospero is just a first step, and a very preliminary one. Even Dorhout isn't quite sure how the next phase will take shape. He envisions a planter like Prospero working side by side with other specialized 'bots: a tender robot that can maintain crops around the clock, monitoring for and combating pests and disease and ensuring soil conditions and moisture remain optimal, and a harvester that would only reap the crops plant-by-plant as they are ready, replacing today's wholesale harvesting methods that always lose some percentage of yield by harvesting too early or too late for some plants in the field. The idea of course is to integrate all of these into a single robotic system that can handle everything from planting to harvest, perhaps organized around a kind of shepherd robot that is responsible for overseeing the entire system and that the farmer could direct as he or she sees fit. After all, the idea here isn't to remove the human farmer from the system, but to make modern agriculture rise up to meet the demands of a growing global population. If that's going to happen, farming has to become smarter.
"When you're sitting in a chair on a tractor, you're not doing the brainwork," Dorhout says. "A swarm of robots allows you to focus on increasing the productivity of, literally, each square foot. This won't solve all of our problems, but it definitely gives us a little breathing room until we work things out."
They took our jobs!
what a crock.
Eventually it will happen, but not in that form.
I think the farm equipment will look just like the harvesters today. They will just be automated. Not only that, but many of the crops will be grown in warehouses, just like lettuce. You can search for Hydroponic Lettuce.
Most of the robotics and automation will be for monitoring and maintaining fluid, oxygen, CO2 and nutrient levels. They will also be used at the and end of the line for removal and packaging.
I like this robot farming to be done on Mars in a massive scale creating a carbon rich soil and a oxygen atmosphere or just store the oxygen for our use. The atmosphere on Mars consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon, and contains traces of oxygen, water, and methane.
It has been proposed that human exploration of Mars could use carbon dioxide (CO2) from Martian atmosphere to make rocket fuel for the return mission. Mission studies that propose using the atmosphere in this way include the Mars Direct proposal of Robert Zubrin and the NASA Design reference mission study. Two major chemical pathways for use of the carbon dioxide are the Sabatier reaction, converting atmospheric carbon dioxide along with additional hydrogen (H2), to produce methane (CH4) and oxygen (O2), and electrolysis, using a zirconia solid oxide electrolyte to split the carbon dioxide into oxygen (O2) and carbon monoxide (CO).
With this use of Robotic farming, no Earthly farmer loses his job and we begin settling Mars.
A robot working in farms may be one of the best ideas ever. Instead of making genetically modified plants to resist round up weed killer, they can use robots to remove unwanted plants. Instead of using poisons to control bugs, we can use robots to get them.
Everyone complains people just don't want to do that work. (really it is the pay versus work) Well just don't program the robots to complain.
hahahahahaaahah god i needed a good laugh. thank you popsci! seriously anyone who has every worked on a real farm knows this is fail technology. theory and concept is great and all but a farm is rugged hard work. extremely complex and changes every day. these guys would have to be water proof, dust proof, mud proof, and pretty damned solid built before any farmer attempts such a task as using them on a farm. farmbots are monster sized machines, not swarm minibots for a reason, its practical. i grew up on a farm, i still help out from time to time. gps driven computer controlled machinery is great....and massive. in 20-30 years this may make it onto the scene, not sooner.
for a large field a farmer would need 50 bots at a minimum.
physical land prep, chemical land prep, seeding, growth maintenance, harvesting, and end of harvest ground maintenance to prep for next crop in rotation. some bots may pull double duty but it would be several generations down the line before a bot that could do it all came to the market. til then it would be a bad bet and thats something farmers are very weary of and banks wont loan money on new concepts easily.
is it possible? yes. is it likely? extremely unlikely within 30 years time.
a farmer works all seasons, all conditions, and their machinery must be up to par or they'll literally be sold as scrap metal and spare parts
I thought that I had seen Prospero's smiley little face before. PopSci featured him on Dec 21st of 2011!
beefy, I pretty much agree that this approach might not meet the challenging farm environment. I'm also not so sure that it's simple. When you have a swarm of these buggers , the sum total is a lot of hardware. Some types of failure are bound to cause trouble to more than just the individual unit.
c'mon guys, don't be so judgemental, this is only a prototype and it's designed to do only one thing. I think it's a good idea to make many specialized modular robots that can be grouped together based on what needs to be farmed. this one just does planting and would look much better with a pretty hard-plastic cover.
personally i envision a field of interconnected tracks that have many sections based on what is planted in the sections, the bots would run on solar power and only enter the sections that they need to tend to, so you could have 30 specialized bots running along tracks each attending just the sections they are responsible for. one will plant, one will prune, reap, fertilize, transplant etc.
eventually you might even be able to ship the tracks and bots as one complete starter set for a basic farm.
this is a good idea or vegatable farming.It could be done on green roofs in cities.
Rice yields can be easily doubled if the maturing fields are not flooded, but weeded. Each stand could be identified and protected by a colored paper strip when transplanted, also by robot.
Vegetable yields can also be boosted by complex intercropping and companion planting, but even small robots may have to plan their access routes. A weeder can be small and simple if it stays busy. A selective harvester for maximum ripeness in a grain field has to be pretty narrow, but it could be done, getting some support from the stalks.
Everything has to be built to shrug off mud, but if they can be produced economically, robots can replace chemicals with organic methods all the way, never tilling, and crowding out most weeds with timed crops or precision mulching. They can even control insects directly, or by herding ladybugs, etc.