A Robot farmer? A reality sooner rather than later

When you think a robot farmer what do you think of? Perhaps it is Bender being chased around the Moon in Futurama running from the Crushinator and its vengeful farmer father. While that episode is set in the year 3000 robot farmers may be closer to reality than we think, and we do not need to be cryogenically frozen like Fry to see them. Welcome to the World of Tomorrow.

First, robots will not be working our farms or becoming a true farmer anytime soon. They just are not agile or ambidextrous enough to do so but that time is coming. Cambridge University in the UK has developed a robot that is able to peel lettuce.

Starting with lettuce

Harvesting lettuce is time consuming work. It grows close to the ground and has to be cut from its roots. Then the outer layers have to be peeled before it can be packaged. Until now only humans were capable of doing this. The robot, known as Sawyer, is able to peel the lettuce in about 30 seconds. A human can do it in about 3 to 4 seconds and it can be done without tearing the finer pieces of lettuce that we all have come to know and love with our favorite salad mainstay.

A vision system is used to orient the arms and determine the center of the head of lettuce. It orients itself off of the stem and if it cannot be located the arm turns it until it is. The actual tearing is done by a robotic arm which uses a suction system to remove the outer leaves.

Coming to a farm near you?

So far this has just been done in a laboratory and if it is to have any real world impact the speed must be improved before it becomes a farmer staple. The developers envision a system like this being placed on a harvester while incorporating other AI enhancements like bagging the produce as well and yes, this could be incorporated into other fruits and vegetables as well.

Farm labor has been decreasing as mechanization has taken over. Robotic farming will be the next great step. Within 20 years it is possible that machines will be dexterous and agile enough to handle industrial farming and human labor on farms may be all but replaced within the next 50 years.

Pros and cons

There are of course benefits to this. Robots will be able to work longer hours and will not need bathroom or lunch breaks meaning the harvest can be brought in much faster and more efficiently. Of course maintenance will need to be performed and they will break down from time to time. Prices could drop (or with inflation simply become more affordable) and food could be made available to not only the First World but also to the Third World as well. World hunger could potentially come to an end.

Of course where would that leave the people who harvest the crops today. While their jobs are in no danger today they may not be able to say that 50 years from now. Robot farming may also put an end (or at least take a bit out of) illegal immigration far more effectively than a border wall or fence could. If there are fewer unskilled jobs available would people still risk their lives to come here illegally? Furthermore are we prepared for what will result from automation as a society? What happens to the people who have their jobs replaced by robots? Are we ready for that because it will affect more than just farm laborers. Economically it will affect us all as AI puts us out of works. It has started with hamburger flippers and it will continue.

That is all well in the future of course and who knows what could happen between now and then. AI is taking many jobs and while it is not as efficient as a human can be it may be a matter of time until AI is. We may not need to wait until the year 3000 to have a folk song loving bending unit get chased for making advances towards a farmer’s robot daughter on the Moon.

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