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Green-thumbed robots: the future of sustainable precision agriculture?

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March 26, 2009

Picking fruit 21st century style

Picking fruit 21st century style

March 26, 2009 When consuming your five a day of fruit and vegetables, have you ever stopped to consider the back breaking labor and significant resources involved in their production? According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratories (CSAIL), the robotic, computerized answer to minimizing these factors could be just around the corner. Students at the laboratory have undertaken a project that utilizes robots to take the thinking and manual labor out of producing specialty crops such as fruit and vegetables.

Conceived by Nikolaus Correll, the project is being designed to use computerized link-up and sensors to potted plants, so that the plants themselves divulge when nutrients and water are needed, or when fruit is produced. The autonomous gardener robot is equipped with a dexterous arm complete with camera, a "hand" (two opposing pads) and a watering pump to tend the plants, while soil sensing and networking components are attached to the plants themselves. The bot will be also able to distinguish and pick ripe produce, water or pollinate the plants.

If the base of the robot shown in the video below looks familiar - it is - having begun life as an iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner. Additional technologies utilized for the project include the Lightweight Communications Marshaller (LCM) which came from a DARPA Grand Challenge Vehicle and object recognition based on the LabelMe image annotation tool.

The aim in the long term is to develop a fully functional automated green house using the robotic system referred to by Rus as precision agriculture. If costs could be minimized and the system utilized in main stream primary production this approach could impact the way certain crops are cultivated and harvested by reducing the resources used in the growth stage, as nutrients and water would only be dispensed when needed.

According to CSAIL, this would greatly benefit both the environment due to the heavy burden placed on resources by the production of such specialized crops, and the pocket of the grower. The manually intensive labor would also be an issue of the past. Perhaps the days of the fruit and veg picker are numbered?

Via CSAIL via Make.

Anne Hanrahan

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