Autonomous Robots Plant, Tend, and Harvest Entire Crop of Barley (spectrum.ieee.org)

348 points by bansheehash 157 days ago

143 comments

thomas_howland 157 days ago

The amount of labor involved in grain crops like barley per dollar of output is minimal already - the guy running the tractor/combine/etc is mostly making sure nothing breaks and keeping an eye on things (which is important when you're operating $N00,000 worth of heavy equipment on open ground). You do need guys, however, for when things do go wrong, and for all the other farm tasks (equipment maintenance, fencing, maintaining irrigation, and so on).

    joncp 157 days ago

    Imagine, though, a time when the automation reaches a stage where all weeding and most insect killing can be done mechanically with a robot instead of chemically with pesticides. That will be a huge boon for the environment and for farmers' bottom lines.

      robotresearcher 157 days ago

      Peter Corke and his huge team at QUT are doing great stuff in this area. They have spot-spraying robots, that zap only weeds and fertilize only crops, and also a great device that just mechanically smashes up weeds one-by-one.

      Peter has an admirable ability to choose projects and deliver the goods on them. Robotics needs more like him.

      Interview with Corke on this subject:

      http://robohub.org/robots-zero-tillage-robotics/

      Homepage with free stuff including books and MOOC:

      http://petercorke.com/wordpress/

      edit: I'm not affiliated with QUT and have no conflict of interest. I'm an academic that does related work but not in agriculture.

        reachtarunhere 157 days ago

        Peter Corke is an amazing guy. Loved his MOOC. Highly recommended if you are just curious about robotics. MATLAB is a sad aspect of it though.

      randomdata 157 days ago

      The environment perhaps, but would it really be better for the bottom line? Mechanical weed control already lost out to chemicals because the chemicals were cheaper.

      On top of that, chemical applicators are relatively simple and proven technology with few moving parts. Farm equipment isn't like your car that can go 100,000 miles without problem. Moving parts on farm equipment will break – constantly. On top of that, computer technology does not come cheap when it is low volume specialized systems, built to withstand the harsh environments of agriculture.

      I have no doubt the technology is possible, but I do wonder if it is possible in a price range that would actually improve the bottom line.

        uuilly 157 days ago

        Yup. A few days ago we (60 people) got bought by John Deere for $305M b/c our machine reduced herbicides by 90% using CV/ML. Our only moving part was a solenoid. Would not have survived if it had been more complicated. You clearly get it.

        maxerickson 157 days ago

        It only has to be cheap enough to make banning various pesticides reasonable.

          randomdata 157 days ago

          You bring up a good point that I forgot about. Some of these chemicals, like Roundup, are not just for pest control, but serve other purposes such as desiccation. Since you are going to need a chemical applicator anyway, a second machine to duplicate functionality further increases the cost ineffectiveness.

          Not only that, but what I am sure most would consider the most devastating type of chemical in recent times, neonicotinoids, are applied as a seed treatment, planted with the planter. Even if you could devise an advanced machine that continually keeps pests from eating the seed while it is buried beneath the ground, that requires trips over the field that are currently not required at all. It is tough to compete with no additional trips over the field. Energy and wear is expensive and potentially devastating to the environment, including issues like carbon emissions and topsoil depletion.

          (Neonics are already banned where I farm, but it is a good illustration of how chemicals can sometimes eliminate the need for machinery altogether and how the robo-pest terminator has to be able to compete with that)

            kuschku 157 days ago

            The robots don’t have to necessarily compete with traditional farming.

            They just have to make Naturland/Bioland/Demeter style organic farming (which except for very rare cases not even allow any chemical pesticides or herbicides) cheap enough that it becomes competitive.

            zaroth 157 days ago

            I think it's a myth that Roundup is used as a desiccant.

            However the robots are not trying to replace chemicals. As you point out, that's a losing proposition. But they can definitely reduce overall man-hours, and so provide constant value as long as they operate.

              randomdata 157 days ago

              > I think it's a myth that Roundup is used as a desiccant.

              I can say from personal experience (I am a farmer) that it is not. My white beans get the roundup treatment. They would never dry down in time for a successful harvest otherwise.

              In the olden days before roundup they used to pull them and leave them to dry before harvest, but that brought its own issues, including requiring many more trips over the field. That is a costly endeavour, including needing multiples more greenhouse gas emitting fuel, which has its own fair share of environmental impacts.

              > But they can definitely reduce overall man-hours, and so provide constant value as long as they operate.

              Even a simple autosteer system, which does not even replace the operator, can cost more than many farmers would spend on labour in their lifetime. Low-volume specialized farming technology is insanely expensive.

              What I believe is primarily pushing the technology is difficulty in finding labour, especially skilled labour. Farmers are seeking more automation to simplify the tasks enough that you can throw any random person on the machine and get a quality result out of their work.

              Operator-less equipment is inevitable, but there is no way the manufactures are going to let the farmer capture any potential gains. It is going to be priced to meet the costs of labour. The farmers will still choose it because they are having trouble finding labour in the first place.

                ndh2 157 days ago

                > The farmers will still choose it because they are having trouble finding labour in the first place.

                If a farmer has trouble finding labor, they don't pay enough. The question is whether or not automation is cheaper than the actual rate that you have to pay in order to get somebody to do the manual labor. Not the rate you would like to pay.

                Maybe it's just semantics, but I don't think "trouble finding labor" is a thing.

                Anyways, thank you for your comments in this thread. Very insightful.

                  randomdata 157 days ago

                  > Maybe it's just semantics, but I don't think "trouble finding labor" is a thing.

                  In a perfect market it isn't. In the real world, I know a big struggle in my area is simply getting enough people to come here in the first place. Not just farmers, but all businesses. It is a small population and there has been an recent economic turnaround, so all of a sudden there is a lot of work, but nobody nearby to do it. It will eventually correct as people start to move here, but that takes time. Possibly a lot of time. People tend to not uproot their entire lives to move to a new location on a whim, no matter how much money is on offer.

                  A shortage (the technical definition, not the one the newspapers like to use) is also possible under the right conditions. In my legal jurisdiction, the government has defined a price ceiling on doctor services. If there aren't enough doctors, we legally cannot offer them more money to attract them, or push other patients out of the market. Trouble finding doctors is very real, especially in rural communities where doctors are less apt to want to practice and no amount of money the patient is willing to offer is going to fix that.

                usefulcat 157 days ago

                "Operator-less equipment is inevitable, but there is no way the manufactures are going to let the farmer capture any potential gains."

                In a properly functioning market, seems like competition between manufacturers would be the mechanism by which the gains would be passed along to the farmer. Are you saying that there is or will be insufficient competition in that market?

                  randomdata 157 days ago

                  > Are you saying that there is or will be insufficient competition in that market?

                  It think is the case. I would suggest that there are only three main players in the industry right now. And what smaller ones are out there seem to have little involvement in the kind of computer/electronics tech that would bring the automation being discussed here, but rather build simpler mechanical-focused machines.

                  When many of these machines can already be priced at amounts nearing $1M to buy as a farmer, I imagine the capital costs to develop that new equipment to be in the hundreds of millions, if not billions. The opportunity for a new business to build a new machine end-to-end, with that level of technology, is pretty small. It doesn't help that the market of farmers out there willing to buy these machines is also comparatively small to other markets that might appeal to someone with that skillset.

                  It becomes more complicated than that as not all manufactures have a strong dealership/service presence in all operating areas, so even if another manufacturer can technically offer you the same machine for less, you may not be able to consider it due to lack of reasonable service. Farm equipment breaks all the time, so service availability is an absolute necessity. That is even more important than the original purchase price.

          grogenaut 157 days ago

          And what price point is that. Pesticides are pretty cheap

            maxerickson 157 days ago

            The impact on the final price of the produce matters more than the comparison to pesticides.

            Like if pesticides represent 0.1 percent of the retail price of some vegetable, I personally would consider it reasonable to spend 10x avoiding some pesticides. Because it would only have a modest impact at retail.

              mikekchar 157 days ago

              The price of wheat in the US is currently ~$170 per tonne. Retail price of flour in the US is currently a bit over $1100 per tonne. Fertiliser and pesticide cost seems to be about 23% percent of revenue, which would work out to about $40. So fertiliser and pesticide cost is currently about 3.6% of the final retail price. Figures come from random google searches, but I think they are about right.

              There are a few things you have to understand about these figures. The first is that only 15% of the retail price is the price of wheat. The rest is shipping, processing, packaging, waste, advertising, and profit. You can actually work out how much each bit actually adds to the price by looking at the price at each step. For example, if you look at wholesale wheat flour prices, you are looking at about $3-400 per tonne.

              The reality is that distribution is the vast majority of the cost and each entity that touches the product along the way wants a big markup. Money costs and each party wants a return on investment, not a fixed return.

              So, if we replaced fertiliser and pesticide with something that costs $400 instead of $40 per tonne of wheat, then the price of the wheat will go to $530. Ideally that will result in a retail price of ~$1500 (about a 25% increase), but in reality it's likely to be at least double.

              Personally, I think this is worthwhile -- especially if the extra $360 per tonne would allow smaller farms and provide more jobs in the farming industry. I don't think it is realistic for 2 main reasons. First I have no idea if even $360 would be enough. Second, large corporations and rich people have a very vested interest in continuing the current trend of moving all of the price into distribution. These distribution channels can be controlled relatively easily and provide rent for them. It also keeps the world food price below the level that traditional farming can support. This means that rich countries can dismantle the agriculture industry of poor countries and then control them. I encourage anybody interested in this kind of thing to look at the conditions attached to government loans/subsidies to poor countries that are used to buy food. When you start looking at this stuff, you are playing with big players who have lots to gain/lose and who aren't going to give up anything easily.

                randomdata 157 days ago

                > especially if the extra $360 per tonne would allow smaller farms

                I would expect the opposite. Wheat was worth a record-high ~$380/tonne back in 2008 and what happened was that the biggest farmers went spend-crazy on land, preventing the existing small farms from growing, and completely pushing thoughts of any new farm operations right out the window. We're still suffering the effects of that as price of land has yet to come down with the price of the crop.

                > and provide more jobs in the farming industry.

                I'm not sure that lack of jobs are really an issue in the farming industry, to be honest. There is already said to be a farm labour shortage as-is. I farm in Canada, so those are the numbers I'm most familiar with, but the news reports that there are 60,000 vacant farm jobs available. Other reports indicate that farm jobs have one of the fastest growing wages in the country (which I realize technically invalidates there being a shortage, but labour shortage has come to mean something other than shortage).

                A big reason why agriculture has been pushing the boundaries of automation is a result of how hard it is to find labour. Especially skilled labour.

                  mikekchar 157 days ago

                  I have to admit that even though I posted what I did, I don't really understand the dynamics of the situation. I know the result I would prefer, but I have no idea how to get there. I'm originally from Canada and my family benefited greatly from the boom cycles of farm land prices. Now I'm living in Japan where it is illegal to sell farm land. I find the different dynamics extremely interesting, but as I am not a farmer, I really don't understand. I honestly believe we're going to be in some difficulty unless we can reboot the small farm, but it seems to be extremely complicated. Even here with high prices, high subsidies, and small farms, there are very few young farmers. Of my neighbours, I think there is one guy who is about 40 and everybody else is well over 60. I have no idea what's going to happen in 10-20 years and it worries me a lot.

                  Anyway, as you seem to be a farmer, please let me convey my utmost respect. Seriously, thank you for being a farmer. We need more people like you.

                    randomdata 157 days ago

                    > there are very few young farmers. Of my neighbours, I think there is one guy who is about 40 and everybody else is well over 60.

                    That is interesting, because the exact opposite is true of my neighbours. Growing up, there were eight farm families clustered fairly close together. In all but one of those cases, the next generation (all still under 40) have become heavily involved with, if not completely taken over, their family's farm. And in that remaining case, the grandson is starting to take the same role.

                    The age statistics can be a little misleading as farms are multi-generational businesses, but they usually only count the primary farm operator for statistical purposes. Which, for legacy reasons, tends to be the oldest person still involved. In many cases there will be someone waiting in the wings to take that spot when retirement comes.

                    > I have no idea what's going to happen in 10-20 years and it worries me a lot.

                    I am less so. If there truly is a lack of young farmers, 2008 will happen again. Meaning that the food price will rise, and people will get all excited about the fortunes to be made. 2008 has already changed attitudes about farming. It was fascinating to watch people go from "why would you ever want to do that?" to "how can I become a farmer too?" over the span of those months. Farming suddenly became 'cool' as soon as there was money to be made. There has been far more interest from young farmers since that time, from what I can observe.

                    But people want to be farmers (i.e. the owner), not farmhands. Being a farmhand is still looked down upon, leading to lack of interest from labour. Interestingly, that could maybe even result in smaller farms down the road if automation doesn't solve the problem first.

                      maxerickson 157 days ago

                      Of course people don't enthuse over seasonal work that pays $15 an hour.

                      Why would they?

                      (I get $15 from brief research; but even at $20 or $25, seasonal work with no benefits isn't a great job)

                        randomdata 157 days ago

                        That seems rather low to what I've been seeing out there (granted, fast growing wages make it a big moving target). But I agree with your general sentiment.

                        Coupled with the fact that the most productive farming regions in Canada have the lowest unemployment rates in the country, there is no reason why anyone has to settle for a farm job. They can get a job almost anywhere. Employers in these agriculture communities are desperate across the board for labour, not just those involved in agriculture.

                        Anyway, the economy is fundamentally self-correcting. I don't see there being anything to worry about. I'm biased as a small farmer, but I don't see slowing down the big producers as a bad thing.

                      otempomores 156 days ago

                      Nobody ever believed that a free market exists when it comes to produce? Fanatics of all directions know that there power ends the day a food riot occurs. Which is one of the reasons why nobody will become farmer again abd it gets outsourced to the cheapest country willing to fake health and environment labels.

                  dmurray 157 days ago

                  > Other reports indicate that farm jobs have one of the fastest growing wages in the country (which I realize technically invalidates there being a shortage, but labour shortage has come to mean something other than shortage).

                  Isn't that the exact definition of shortage? Prices rise because demand excess supply at the previous price.

                    randomdata 157 days ago

                    A shortage is technically defined as a situation where price cannot rise, such as the government imposing a price ceiling, preventing the price from reaching equilibrium. As long as price is able to rise, demand will wane with the rising price, and thus the supply will ultimately meet the needs of the demand.

                    That price is rising should invalidate the idea of a shortage, but labour shortage seems to have come to mean a situation where an employer has made their desire to hire known, but received no suitable applicants.

                      shkkmo 157 days ago

                      Isn't a shortage technically defined as when supply can't meet demand? Capped prices is one potential cause, but demand also isn't always very elastic and this can cause shortages on it's own.

                        randomdata 157 days ago

                        > Isn't a shortage technically defined as when supply can't meet demand?

                        It is, yes, and ultimately says the same thing. I prefer the alternative phrasing as I think it more clearly explains the mechanisms, especially when people sometimes confuse demand to mean 'I want something'.

                        > Capped prices is one potential cause, but demand also isn't always very elastic and this can cause shortages on it's own.

                        I don't see it being contradictory. In an ideal model of inelastic demand, the demand never wanes no matter how high the price goes. However, price cannot continue to rise infinitely, so you have technically created a situation where price cannot rise again. It is still the price not being able to rise that characterizes the shortage in this case.

                        I did not mean to suggest that the government is the only thing that can cause prices to stop increasing. It was just one example.

                fpoling 157 days ago

                There was a study in Denmark that showed 25% of the income from sales in supermarkets went into advertising.

                It is interesting that the distribution, not production, dominated the prices since ancient times. 2500 yeas ago in Mediterranean transporting wheat 100 km over land doubled its price compared with price at a sea port which was already quite higher than production. In a bad year when local crop failed rich citizens prevented widespread hunger by buying enough extra bread overseas.

                honestoHeminway 157 days ago

                .. each entity that touches the product along the way wants a big markup...

                Oh, yes. I know a miller, where my brother did a intern ship- buy dry wheat, spray it with water till it gets too just the max allowed water percentage - resell it. So lets add 5 % scaming to the whole game.

      losteric 157 days ago

      I am interested to see how the pest ecosystem evolves in response to robotic "predators"... Can insects evolve effective camouflage? Will weeds evolve to mimic cash crops? How will fungi/bacteria/viruses respond to a lack of other pests?

      Animats 157 days ago

      It's here now. Blue River makes LettuceBot, which is a machine-vision system for killing weeds in lettuce fields. The machine is towed behind a tractor, looks down at the lettuce and weeds, and zaps weeds and too-close-together lettuce plants with targeted sprays of concentrated fertilizer.[1] It's a full neural net vision system, with many cameras and software borrowed from face recognition. They train the system with pictures of weeds and pictures of good plants, and as it rolls over the field, it targets the bad stuff and sprays it.

      This isn't experimental. It's now owned by John Deere and is currently doing 10% of the US lettuce crop. Next, cotton. There's no problem with plants becoming resistant to weed-killers. Unless pigweed learns to look like lettuce, it's going to get zapped.

      It's sold as a service. For $220 an acre, Blue River comes and zaps your weeds. Now available in the Salinas Valley and Yuma, AZ.

      [1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YCa8RntsRE

      dejv 157 days ago

      Insects are never gonna be killed mechanically, those are too small and too many in count. Modern trend is to use biological controll: you "plant" organism that eat them or eat their eggs.

        dejv 157 days ago

        Just to expand on my comment, biological control is quite varied, but the main theme is selectivity: you don't want to destroy all the insects or butterflies, just those who do harm to your produce.

        So you basically have couple of forms, either some microbes, viruses or some form of insects that eat on just one type of insect or of insect class. Another main form is pheromone confusion thingies: you put them in your orchard/vineyard/market garden and it make hard for males of your target pest to find female and procreate.

        PeterisP 157 days ago

        Certain pests (mainly large beetles or their larvae) used to be controlled by removing them manually - it's more expensive than pesticides, but it was feasible (and worth it!) to do it simply by bunch of people going over the crops. This means that they could be controlled mechanically in the future.

        njarboe 156 days ago

        If you had a system that could target such small things, lasers might work.

      gcb0 157 days ago

      if you simply build a decent greenhouse it's already bug and weed free. plus your crop can survive unexpected frost.

      adding high maintenance robots is just silly.

        ams6110 157 days ago

        Farming crops like wheat and barley in greenhouses is not feasible at the scale of the market today.

      gbrown 157 days ago

      I've daydreamed about trying exactly that on a small scale. Industrially, that would be amazing for the environment.

        ModernMech 157 days ago

        Especially if said robots can run on the weeds and bugs they are removing!

          QAPereo 157 days ago

          So basically ladybugs, but with a profit margin and TOS.

            losteric 157 days ago

            Not invented here, not relevant! /s

        danblick 157 days ago

        Have you seen farmbot.io?

          gbrown 157 days ago

          No, looks interesting, thanks.

      shanev 157 days ago

      We are destroying topsoil at an alarming rate due to industrial farming that we may have no choice but to go this route.

        thomas_howland 157 days ago

        We are absolutely not. Productive farmland in the USA is fairly expensive and farmers are extremely interested in preserving its value. Most "destroyed" topsoil is due to eg suburban developments spreading into former agricultural areas, but it's still minimal in the grand scheme of things.

          Dylanfm 157 days ago

          Development of arable land is a problem, but our agricultural practices are a major one. I think shanev is speaking about the effects of modern agriculture on top soil. We should prioritise the _creation_ of soil. Instead, top soil is being degraded and then lost though erosion. There are other issues, such as the planting of monocultures, overuse of nitrogen fertilizers and so on.

          As climate change brings us longer droughts and larger downpours, we should be farming in ways that build top soil for more resilient farmland.

          (edit - adding link to http://www.fao.org/docrep/t0389e/t0389e02.htm)

            shanev 157 days ago

            Yes this is exactly what I was getting at. Thanks for putting it more eloquently than I did. I’m just used to getting downvoted anytime I talk about monoculture farming, soil, and climate change so I don’t put effort into it anymore.

            I think the pro-GMO crowd thinks talking about sustainable farming is anti-science when it actually involves more science at a macro level to understand the effects of synthetic monoculture farming on soil, and it’s effects on climate change.

              Dylanfm 157 days ago

              There's science and technology all the way along the sustainability spectrum... but it isn't evenly distributed.

              I'm new to growing and enjoying the steep but rewarding learning curve. Soil is an amazing thing and I think humans are only just getting a better idea of what's going on down there. This recent conference talk helps shed some light: "Building Soil Health for Healthy Plants by soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham" https://youtu.be/xzthQyMaQaQ

                cwkoss 156 days ago

                >Soil is an amazing thing and I think humans are only just getting a better idea of what's going on down there.

                So true. A protein which makes up ~10% of soil by weight was only discovered in the 90s.

                https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glomalin

                  shanev 156 days ago

                  And only last year we discovered soil has a micro-biome too [1], and it has a profound impact on plant growth.

                  The most fascinating aspect of soil to me is that it's a natural carbon store, which for obvious reasons will become increasingly important in the coming years.

                  [1]: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/soil-has-microb...

      Gustomaximus 157 days ago

      I think this is the key vs the planting side. Maybe soil monitoring and watering/fertilising at a micro level.

      If someone can make a drone to fly around and take out pests like fruitfly that would be a massive step forward vs spraying.

      lightedman 157 days ago

      "Imagine, though, a time when the automation reaches a stage where all weeding and most insect killing can be done mechanically with a robot instead of chemically with pesticides. "

      Why bother with that when we already have controlled facilities where pests simply can't gain a foot hold in the first place, making that labor totally unnecessary?

        njarboe 157 days ago

        Greenhouse the entire mid-west? With big enough structures to run tractors? Not sure the ROI is going to work out.

          lightedman 156 days ago

          I don't think you understand how indoor vertical farming works. In 1/8 of an acre you can produce an entire acre of crops, utilizing upwards of 99% less resources.

          To boot, you don't even need tractors to harvest. You can just pull the entire tray yourself once the NFT solution's drained from the channel.

          I can take 1/8th of an acre of land, and produce a full acre of wheatgrass in two weeks and harvest it myself with no mechanical methods required in less than a couple of hours.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZTikdxj8AI

          I was doing this 20 years ago in high school horticultural science class.

      rasz 157 days ago

      What farmers? there wont be any farmers left, just mega corporations.

    burger_moon 157 days ago

    Some of my family members drive truck at farms during harvest and I've rode along a lot. The guy driving the combine can mostly be automated except the part of having to stop and clear out metal or other jams that stop them. The machines have sensors which shut them down instantly when they detect metal because the cutter is expensive as hell. Not sure there's really a way to automate that. There's a lot of other less common things that cause the chopper to stop but foreign debris is the most common.

    As far as field trucks go, well they're mostly old 15+ years with new-ish trailers because well trucking doesn't pay shit so it'll be long time before self driving trucks replace the current fleet (you have to figure the new trucks on the road now will because part time field trucks 20 years from now). If can get GPS accurate enough you could automate a lot of it, but trucks get stuck all the time in the field which mean the guy driving the chopper has to stop and pull the truck out.

    It'll be tricky to automate all the weird oddities you come across out in the field. In the end these guys aren't making very much so the cost benefit doesn't really seem to be there but we'll see.

      dejv 157 days ago

      I had one vineyard planted this year using fully automatic planter using gps and laser mavigation. There was driver inside, but he was just a controller: once he moved few cm out of the path whole thing just shut down and he had to drive back to spot.

    Houshalter 157 days ago

    Yeah this isn't terribly exciting. People have been demoing self driving tractors and farm machinery for decades. Ford had one in the 1950s. Most of the hard work like actually picking the crop has already been solved, and making the tractor self driving just saves a few hours of work at most.

    What would be really cool is automating crops that still require lots of manual labor. Like vegetables. That's the reason they are still so expensive. An automated greenhouse would be enormous news.

    Whats also cool is stuff like this (https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/industrial-robo...) which eliminates the need for pesticides.

      bamboozled 157 days ago

      That's the reason they are still so expensive.

      My observations have been that vegetables are so inexpensive they're often thrown away?

      Obviously these cheap crops are often grown in a monetarily cheap but environmentally destructive way but I've no idea where you're seeing these expensive vegetables for sale?

        Houshalter 157 days ago

        I meant expensive in a relative sense. A pound of corn is a few cents, a pound of vegetables is a few dollars (it's far worse when you compare price per calorie.) Maybe expensive is the wrong word to use, but the economic impact of automating this would be quite enormous. And I have seen people complain that eating healthier is more expensive.

      chiefofgxbxl 157 days ago

      > What would be really cool is automating crops that still require lots of manual labor. Like vegetables. That's the reason they are still so expensive.

      Same deal with coffee beans, which contributes to their higher price. The coffee beans do not ripen at the same time, so they must be hand-picked so the worker can identify which ones are ready. Lots of manual labor.

      And with coffee being so widely consumed, savings here would easily be felt by a lot of people, although I doubt Starbucks would like it...

        setr 157 days ago

        Why would starbucks be against lowered supply prices? Either the whole market drops in price and starbucks keeps the same profit margin but lowers actual price, or starbucks just sells the same price but now with higher margins than before

          kuschku 157 days ago

          Because Starbucks has found a carefully balanced point between being affordable enough that it has mainstream appeal, and expensive enough that it seems premium.

          Any change, absolute or relative, would reduce their margin.

            philh 157 days ago

            Do you claim that the current price of coffee beans is the price that happens to maximise Starbucks' profits? (This seems implausible to me, unless Starbucks has fairly strong control over the price of coffee beans.)

            Or is your claim more narrow than that?

              kuschku 157 days ago

              My claim is that the current price of coffee beans happens by coincidence to be close to the optimum for Starbucks’ profits, and any major change would be a disadvantage.

        157 days ago

    Alex3917 157 days ago

    > The amount of labor involved in grain crops like barley per dollar of output is minimal already

    What crops have the highest labor costs, in both absolute dollars and as a percentage of what the consumer pays?

      thomas_howland 157 days ago

      Hand-harvestable-only crops like lettuce and tomatoes. Basically the CA Central Valley.

        Alex3917 157 days ago

        Interesting. Between farm labor automation and self-driving cars, do you foresee a point where it's cost effective to give certain foods away for free and monetize via advertising? Even if it's slightly offbeat stuff like dandelion greens and seaweed or whatever?

          prawn 157 days ago

          If anyone wants to eat thistles, I'll give those away... Oxalis too.

            Alex3917 157 days ago

            > If anyone wants to eat thistles, I'll give those away.

            How do they actually taste? I know they're in the artichoke family, but I've never actually dug one up or whatever.

              prawn 156 days ago

              Never tried them, but they are a painful weed here, grow quickly and seed very easily. We used to give the seed heads to our canary once upon a time, but currently have hundreds of thistles to zero canaries.

              Perhaps if they could be blended and used as a base for bread or cakes, but I have no idea if they're safe in large quantities.

                Alex3917 156 days ago

                > I have no idea if they're safe in large quantities.

                Good point, for most foraged stuff you definitely don't want it to make up more than a certain percentage of your diet. Not only because of the plants themselves, but also because it's hard to know how much heavy metals and other toxins they absorb. You should be fine treating it as a normal vegetable because it's known to be safe in those quantities, I just wouldn't eat it every meal for a week.

        xefer 157 days ago

        I wonder if there will come a time when buying food harvested by stoop labor will be considered immoral. Perhaps human diets should target foods that can be produced through mechanization where possible.

      KGIII 157 days ago

      Blueberry costs are about 50% labor.

    nine_k 157 days ago

    It's a very nice proof of concept. Also I bet these guys collected a lot of info important to develop robots for more finicky crops. This could be the most valuable part of the project.

    stephengillie 157 days ago

    This is essentially the argument against automation - that a human is so versatile, we can be "programmed" (convinced, paid, trained, etc.) to perform many disparate tasks. Our exception handling is so robust (what happens if it floods?) that it's a problem solving engine unto itself. As with a grocery store, the self-check machines can't sweep the floor or stock shelves when business is slow.

    jamesrcole 157 days ago

    > You do need guys, however, for when things do go wrong, and for all the other farm tasks (equipment maintenance, fencing, maintaining irrigation, and so on).

    How far away is automation of those kinds of tasks, I wonder? I don't have much of any idea, myself.

      tinco 157 days ago

      Very far away. Computers can't even drive cars autonomously yet, which is a far simpler task. As it stands computers can't deal with any sort of irregularity that humans would deal with through basic creativity. I've also not seen robots plan fine manipulation yet, even though I feel that should be achievable with current technology.

    ge96 157 days ago

    Wasn't there a huge multi-rotor that cost $15,000 haha, it was water proof I think and had radar... crazy. I really like the concept of little robots running around doing their thing. Like those under water drones that are in the oceans.

    oh_sigh 157 days ago

    True, but that is because the farmers have access to huge fields which let them deploy their equipment efficiently. Autonomous farming would let you theoretically use more marginal lands which are not currently suitable for manual farming.

      randomdata 157 days ago

      I expect you are suggesting that small parcels of land that are far away from large fields are not worth the travel expenses? I'm not sure that robots really improve on that, as fuel, wear and tear, etc. going field to field remain a big detractor. There are plenty of farmers who do it for fun. They'd be happy to spend the time in the machine if labour costs were the only reason to avoid those fields.

      I already farm a field that is one acre in size and one that is three acres because they are near to a large field that does justify the travel costs. Any that fit that description are likely to be already in production.

        oh_sigh 157 days ago

        Not necessarily small - mostly marginal(I should have mentioned that it wasn't necessarily sheer size of field, but something like size*quality in my original post). I don't agree with your characterization about farmers doing it for fun. I'm sure there are a lot of people, say, within 10 miles of a major city who would farm for fun, but outside of that radius you mostly have people who either already have farms or manually farm on their own house plot.

          randomdata 157 days ago

          > I should have mentioned that it wasn't necessarily sheer size of field, but something like sizequality in my original postl*

          Understood. Marginal traditionally refers to the quality, but I wasn't sure how you thought the math would work. And since you mentioned size before, I went in that direction.

          I am still unsure of how the math would work out. I have a farm that is already bordering on marginal and even ignoring labour costs it is difficult to turn a profit. Honestly, labour costs are a drop in the bucket. It costs hundreds of dollars per acre for input costs (seed, fertilizer, fuel, etc.), there is a significant capital cost to having the land and the machinery, while the labour if I paid myself minimum wage would be maybe $10 per acre over the course of the year. And I think that's pushing it. That is only 2% of the input costs when my other input costs are $500.

          If a field is only 2% shy of not being marginal, I'm certain there is already someone trying to make it work.

          > I don't agree with your characterization about farmers doing it for fun.

          Well, that's why I do it, so I have some experience there. If it was about the money, I know software development pays far better.

          > but outside of that radius you mostly have people who either already have farms

          I was assuming that those who farm for fun would already have their own farm. However, now that you mention it, I always see the retired farmers are still keen to get back into the equipment, so it is not strictly limited to those who have their own farms. Living hours away from the nearest city, I don't really see it being an activity of those near the city.

        jsilence 156 days ago

        Also leaving an expensive robot on a small remote plot might not be a good idea because of theft.

      157 days ago

    agumonkey 157 days ago

    How much thoughts have been put to improve farming beside fertilizers and pesticides ?

    I do wish for better food, and better life for farmers. Also I'm quite annoyed by mainstream tech (find it often uselessly improving the wrong parts of life).

    imtringued 156 days ago

    There is still the time advantage. Having two autonomous tractors is twice as fast as operating one by hand.

zeristor 157 days ago

There were a series of talks at the Royal Society about Robot Farming a few months back.

This video, by the head of Harper Adams College, goes into a lot more detail:

https://youtu.be/OU8nwf2UI8g

Agricultural machinery size is now limited by train tunnel size for delivery.

Larger farm vehicles, although more productive per person are heavier and cause soil compaction, which then requires further treatments to fix. Mention was made of light robot tractors able to work wet fields earlier before they are dry enough for a heavy human tractor so extending they growing season. They show an example of a light weight tractor that can drive up and down on a wet field without turning it into mud.

randomdata 157 days ago

> There’s still dirt, early mornings, dirt, more dirt

I have always wondered who are these farmers in the dirt in the early morning? Where I farm the environment is rarely suitable for 'being in the dirt' in the morning. Typically the field work starts in the mid-afternoon after the sun has had a chance to dry up the morning's dew or previous days rain. There are definitely some late nights though.

    Gustomaximus 157 days ago

    Im on a small hobby farm outside Brisbane. Mid afternoon you want to be inside to get out of the heat. Mornings are prime time to get things done. Or later afteenoon.

      randomdata 157 days ago

      > Mid afternoon you want to be inside to get out of the heat.

      That's what air conditioning is for!

    seiferteric 157 days ago

    Hot arid climates? In the CA central valley there will be little dew in the morning in summer as it's probably already 70+ degrees F, so the earlier the better.

    lightedman 157 days ago

    "I have always wondered who are these farmers in the dirt in the early morning?"

    Southern California vineyards, for one. Come work in 100+F heat at 9:30AM.

      randomdata 157 days ago

      I'm not sure that vinyards really match the description of the grain farmer in the article. But maybe I read too into their description.

      Still, there is no set pattern of farmer behaviour. It is interesting that the idea of get up early has become so pervasive.

        lightedman 156 days ago

        "It is interesting that the idea of get up early has become so pervasive."

        Early to bed and early to rise. Also, our ancestors used to run more polyphasic sleep cycling.

DesiLurker 157 days ago

what I am interested in is robots that can reforest unused land. Imagine the possibilities with having armies of robots re-establishing green cover in Amazon delta. kinda like this but with robots:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_GreenHands

good thing is that would be not require nearly as much 'babysitting' as growing crops just ability to charter uneven terrain.

samstave 157 days ago

It said that the capital to do this was $200,000 -- what was the inventory of robots required to accomplish this.

What will it take to have a small fleet of robots to manage small farms - but many small farms.

What if a community of gardens and farms were dispersed around a neighborhood/small town - and the town shared the use of the autonomous robots wherever possible.

Which robots are common to all farms and which robots are specific to a given crop?

Also, the downplay the robot-management tasks (refueling, recharging, interceding in really bad weather to tell the robots "that'll do robot, no farming today" sort of stuff)

An open library of farm robots, the tasks they can do, their cost options, how much crop area /number of farms/acres they can manage, if they can multi-task between activities specific to tomatoes in one farm and corn in another etc...

That would be interesting data.

Then couple that with the open source civilization plans - and update those to make those items more intelligent for efficiencies in their designed tasks.

In 100 years, if we can get an atmosphere on mars, we just send a fully automated pre-colonizing farm fleet to prep our invasion.

    ekianjo 157 days ago

    It will take way longer than 100 years to gey an atmosphere ready to grow earth crops on Mars, if at all possible.

      samstave 157 days ago

      I know that, I was putting a random number.

      Regardless, we could still have a fleet of robots go build structures there, then another that will grow things in the structures...

      We talk about sending men to mars, but I think it's short-sighted to not first figure out how to send and deploy resources and robots to pre-build infrastructure for said humans - and we should be practicing on the moon.

      Or why is it that nobody seems to be talking about this? And specifically talking about practicing in the moon?

      Spacex is really focused on a rocket that can get to mars, how much more quickly can it get to the moon?

        ekianjo 157 days ago

        > We talk about sending men to mars, but I think it's short-sighted to not first figure out how to send and deploy resources and robots to pre-build infrastructure for said humans - and we should be practicing on the moon.

        As far as I know SpaceX is focusing on sending "stuff" to Mars, not just humans. Humans are better than robots in many ways though, as in they can do a lot of more versatile stuff. We can build rovers to explore and take pictures, but building a robot that can mimic the palette of actions of a typical human is far beyond our reach at the moment.

Reason077 157 days ago

What I really need is an autonomous slug-killing robot on my allotment. Everything else I can handle. I've tried most existing controls, short of toxic Metaldehyde pellets, with little effect on the little buggers.

I estimate they destroyed over 50% of my (potential) crop this year, which makes you wonder how much toxic stuff goes on all those perfect field-grown cabbages etc you see in supermarkets...

    awjr 157 days ago

    Chickens are the answer my friend ;)

    Seriously they are brilliant and the eggs are just this great bonus. The more insects they eat the tastier the eggs! You do need to visit them at least once per day, however auto-feeders and automatic coop openers do mean you are only going to collect eggs and maybe refill water. They also have amazing characters.

    If you have a good relationship with other allotment holders then they can also collect eggs and look after them for you if you go on holiday.

    If you do consider getting some, get point of lay chickens as they will give you a lot more eggs in the long run. Rescue chickens are a friendlier than some of the pure breeds but you do not get the variety of egg colours.

    You do not need a cockerel but do expect hens to crow after laying. They love shouting about it.

      Reason077 157 days ago

      Unfortunately animals are not permitted on my allotment (except bees). Also the visiting-every-day requirement might be more of a commitment than I can muster.

      But I'm curious, how would the chickens get to the slugs? Don't they have to be kept in a fenced off enclosure, away from the plants - otherwise they would damage young seedlings etc?

      We do have a population of toads which I think eat the slugs, but they just don't eat enough of them! And the local cats, in turn, seem to be quite interested in eating the toads...

        awjr 156 days ago

        I used to keep young seedlings covered, but anything big they ignored but happily hunted all day. On an allotment I would suspect you would need to pen your allotment using a flexible electric fence IF people objected to chickens invading their allotment.

    jsilence 156 days ago

    You might try mulching with woodchips to create a habitat for slug eating beetles. The slug problem might intermediately become worse while the natural balance is establishing.

jefflombardjr 157 days ago

Do this for small scale non-monoculture farming and I will be impressed. This is just a marginal productivity gain for factory farming.

    losteric 157 days ago

    You're right... it's just like how early commercial computers were productivity gains for large corporations.

    New tech is expensive and not very good - only big businesses see positive ROI. As some technology matures, it becomes a commodity for everyone.

    Small farms could go do this right now. It just wouldn't make financial sense.

      jefflombardjr 157 days ago

      Yeah I mean if you think improving ethanol and malt production is cool.

      As far as actual food I'm more impressed by small scale open source farm bot projects and some of the innovative stuff permaculturists are doing without tech.

      Factory farmers = Microsoft/Windows

      Small scale farmers = Open Source/Linux

157 days ago

Tade0 157 days ago

> Moonshots like this are understandably expensive, though, and since a huge chunk of that money went to capital costs (like buying a tractor and a harvester), the next crop will be vastly cheaper.

They would get a more accurate number if they calculated how much these machines depreciated over that period instead of just throwing in their total cost.

    justonepost 157 days ago

    Not really, they should theoretically handle a lot more than a hectare with these things.

      teekert 157 days ago

      And over time you don't need machines that accommodate humans anymore making them even cheaper to produce. This is the future.

      Tade0 157 days ago

      That's sort of the point I was making. The machines were barely used, so they should still be worth a lot.

camillomiller 157 days ago

I have an acquaintance who works for a huge manufacturer of agricultural machinery. His stories about adventurous technicians who have to parachute into remote Australian farm lands to repair a stuck self-driving combine are always nice to hear.

    mads 156 days ago

    That sounds like an awesome job.

    mabbo 157 days ago

    Literally parachute?

TaylorAlexander 157 days ago

If anyone is in to this I write speculative fiction about this kind of thing:

http://tlalexander.com/sanctuary/

(I also build robots) :)

    tw1010 157 days ago

    Any tips for people who want to start writing speculative fiction (or just short stories), other than to just practice a lot?

      TaylorAlexander 157 days ago

      I think my best tip is both to read (for amusement, education, and inspiration) and to write (as in - just do it, and if you're stuck silence your inner critic and just DO IT).

      I'm just some engineer. But I'm a really imaginative and passionate person and I have a lot of ideas I care about. And so I write about those. I was inspired by reading The Martian, which was an amazing book written by a Software Engineer. It was after reading The Martian that I began writing.

      Have you tried writing? What has been your blocker?

      quuquuquu 157 days ago

      Not OP, but I would suggest reading paul graham's essay about writing like how you would speak.

      What also works best for me is writing the shit that I actually want to read, or developing the games that I actually want to play.

      Write from the heart, and love it so much that you re-read your own stories.

      Most people probably won't read it or like it. But that's just the game we play!

Taniwha 157 days ago

Somewhere out the back is another bunch of fields where they test the robots, they're probably full of crops in various states of destruction

meri_dian 157 days ago

Automate the supply chains. Start with what is essential then move on from there.

    toomuchtodo 157 days ago

    Disagree. Automate the production, which democratizes the supply.

    Minimal supply chains are necessary if you can produce crops autonomously at the point of consumption (think rooftop solar). It would be wildly inefficient to grow in each person's backyard, but not so to grow in the outer rings of urban areas.

    Automated production is essential. Supply chains for abundant, distributed resources are superfluous.

      abakker 157 days ago

      I think you might be correct in some domains, but farming isn't one. You simply can't grow all crops in all places, nor is that allocation of land a good use. Barley grows well in flat fields. Not so well in the wooded hills outside Atlanta. Hops won't grow at all where it doesn't freeze in the winter, and basil needs lots of sun and water. We've mostly optimized where we grow crops for land use and yield already, so, it is indeed a supply chain problem to move them to where they need to go.

      Also, I'm not sure how automation of labor democratizes supply. supply isn't constrained by labor. It is constrained by yield. Automation won't solve that as much as chemical engineering or more land would.

        toomuchtodo 157 days ago

        > I'm not sure how automation of labor democratizes supply.

        It puts the control back in the hands of consumers of the product, instead of producers (which is more often than not, multinationals or large corporations who are motivated to extract as much profit as possible from their business transactions).

        You do not have time or resources to farm your own plot of land (generally speaking, hand waving away the homesteaders here). Your ag co-op [1] does. This is to farming as AWS was to infrastructure (if I may be permitted to torture an analogy).

        [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_cooperative

          wil421 157 days ago

          Who do you really think will own the robots? It will be the multinational corporations again. Food is decently cheap already considering I have to eat multiple times a day. People will just spend their money on some place else. Like you said another corporation will extract profit from other transactions.

            toomuchtodo 157 days ago

            > Who do you really think will own the robots?

            Well, society gets a say. Witness how both Canada and India have invalidated pharma patents, and how the US DoD is permitted to nullify patents when it suits them for strategic purposes [1].

            Also, the US government can infringe on a patent with limited resource of the patent holder.

            "Can the U.S. Government Infringe a U.S. Patent? (The U.S. Government Says it’s Impossible)"

            "Although a patentee can sue the U.S. government for unlicensed use of its invention, Congress requires that those cases be filed in the Court of Federal Claims (CFC) rather than in district court. No jury trial is available, and the only remedy is a reasonable royalty." [2]

            I think its a bit defeatist to throw your arms up in the air and say "there is no hope, big companies will always win", but I'm an optimist.

            [1] https://www.wired.com/2013/04/gov-secrecy-orders-on-patents/

            [2] https://patentlyo.com/patent/2015/09/government-infringe-imp...

              wil421 157 days ago

              Just because something becomes cheaper doesn't mean someone isn't profiting. Unless the government owns the production and historically that doesn't work out so well. We live in a capitalist society. For thousands of years there has been a chief, king, family, and now corporate entity profiting off another group. Humans are not even close in our lifetimes.

              I won't even source anything I can look around. Applaud your optimism.

          abakker 157 days ago

          Automation provides the masses neither the automatons nor the land. It could make coops marginally better at producing, but it would cost money the coop doesn't have to buy the robots and systems, and would still be constrained by land and fertilizer. Labor just doesn't matter that much to yield.

            toomuchtodo 157 days ago

            Indeed the initial capital needs to come from somewhere, although I will argue that technology creates a deflationary spiral allowing automatons to be acquired cheaper than traditional tooling. Witness Tesla able to sell a $35k base EV that is superior to quite a few internal combustion vehicles on the market, with that price only going down as battery manufacturing scales up.

            "The students involved in the Hands Free Hectare project also suggest that this was probably “the most expensive hectare of barley ever,” with an overall budget of £200,000 from the U.K. government. Moonshots like this are understandably expensive, though, and since a huge chunk of that money went to capital costs (like buying a tractor and a harvester), the next crop will be vastly cheaper."

ge96 157 days ago

Man that is a cool site, all the robotic articles thanks for sharing

bobsgame 157 days ago

I love this so much. This is the coolest thing in the world.