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The robots are coming!

11/05/2013 @ 8:01am

When you hear the word robot, you may picture a large mechanical man with stubby arms and legs and a featureless face. It might be Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet, 1956), C3PO (Star Wars, 1977), or the steely skeleton head of the Terminator (Terminator, 1984). It’s all good sci-fi fun, but robots are no longer fictional. To know the future of robots on your farm, you need to see the future in a different way, too.

Robots are great

Combines and tractors carry an incredible amount of technology from GPS tracking to performance sensors. Likewise, your smartphones are packed with technology. You’ve grown comfortable with this. Now, think of self-driving machinery as computational power that carries you around – a laptop with wheels, a smart harvester. Just as advances in assisted-driving cars make them safer, robots can make your farm safer and more efficient.

Robots are making their way into greenhouses where they water and weed. “The interesting thing is how these robots work together in a swarm,” says Simon Egerton, a roboticist at Monash University in Australia. “They use decentralized, self-organizing intelligence and respond to the changes of the plants.”

Large robots of the future will help do the work of scarce human resources. For example, milking robots on dairy farms let the cows decide when to be milked. 

Whenever you do a task, ask yourself if a robot could do this. Maybe your time would be better spent elsewhere.

Robots are small

One area I’m particularly interested in is robots that will do things people could never do. A whole new class of tiny robots is designed to mimic nature.

For example, Harvard professors Gu-Yeon Wei and Robert Wood developed a robo-bee (at right). It’s not complex and only needs to accomplish simple tasks.

Imagine having your own swarm of robot worker bees. Where would you have them go, and what would they do?

Robot farms

Victor Callaghan started the robotics lab at the University of Essex in England. “Imagine if we have a whole bunch of robots – little and big – working together to make farms as efficient as possible,” he says. “Think of the entire farm as a robot, each a small portion of a larger intelligent system. A really good future farm would be a robot we work inside of.”

A farm is a rich collection of tasks that have to happen on a day-by-day, sometimes on an hour-by-hour, basis with monitoring. Many tasks can be aided or taken over completely by a robot. It’s really not science fiction.  

Technology should make your life better. When you think about robots on your farm, ask these two questions:  

  • Does it make me safer?  

  • Is it more efficient?


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