While robots are steadily making appearances in the developments of more and more industries – from healthcare to law enforcement – one sector most thought they would have a hard time penetrating was agriculture.
A variety of factors worked to keep them out of all but the simplest parts of the field. But the cRops –Clever Robots for Crops – project, part of the European Union Seventh Framework Program, is looking to finally get robots in play in what was previously regarded as the last place they'd ever be seen: harvesting.
Those devices, developed as part of the cRops platform, will be able to do things almost unheard of for robots, such as the delivery of pesticides and the like, only to foliage and other precise targets (otherwise known as site-specific spraying), detect and classify obstacles, and perform the selective harvesting of fruit.
The cRops initiative is comprised of labs located around the world, with most of its presence in Europe but also trending outside to places like Chile and Israel. While their project started in 2010, they estimate that their results won't be commercialized until sometime in 2017.
The reason for the massive delay between start and actual commercial releases is that, in general, robotics is still in a very early stage of its overall product life-cycle, and much of what's being developed, at least in Europe, is done on the strength of academic or government commission.
But indeed, there were several factors that made it seem as though robots could never be part of agriculture, especially harvesting. Humans had harvested fruit for thousands of years as they could successfully grasp and remove fruit from its vine or branch, a task that was often too delicate and required too much discretion for automated units to accomplish. While they've made some strides – tree-shaking machines go a long way in harvesting nuts on some farms – getting a robot that could successfully discriminate between fruit ready for harvest and fruit unsuitable for same was difficult to say the least, as well as expensive.
Under the auspices of the Bio-oriented Technology Research Advancement Institution, Japan's Institute of Agricultural Machinery developed a robot capable of identifying ripe strawberries by color, cutting off those that had reached at least 80 percent redness at the stem, and then dropping said berries into a padded bin.
Reports indicate that in 2007, venture funding for robots cleared a total of $160 million, and around $43 million of that went to Restoration Robotics. With venture funding clearly on the rise and a growing number of entrants into the field overall, it's safe to say robots may be on the way to the growing fields before long.
But with price tags in the 25k to 50k range, how many farmers will throw over their already-expensive purchases of combines, planters and the like for a whole new array of robotic hardware? It may not be so hard as some may think, as the robots are likely to offer substantial fuel savings over their competitors, as well as require substantially lower space requirements for storage. It's likely to be a gradual shift, but robots that can run their own harvests will likely be valuable tools in agriculture once they come into their own.
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Edited by Braden Becker