Robot Farmers

Robot Farmers Irrigation Robot.
Photo Credit: Intel Free Press, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/), via Flickr.

In the recent Will Smith movie "I, Robot," fleets of intelligent robots have taken over a wide range of responsibilities in human society. While a world like that is far off, pieces of it are already emerging. For example, scientists are now designing fleets of small, cheap robots that may revolutionize farming.


Keeping robots down on the farm. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In the future, a typical farmer might start the day by milking the cows, feeding the chickens, and releasing the robots. That's the goal of Tony Grift, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

He and his colleagues are designing a variety of small, cheap robots to perform basic farming tasks, like scouting for weeds.


We could have small robots that roam the fields, and one of them would detect the problem, and he would just call in the cavalry and they would just take care of this thing as a group.

One of the big challenges is teaching the robots to navigate outdoor terrain. One prototype has sensors that can detect corn rows on either side of it. The robot is programmed to follow a straight path between the rows, to adjust if it veers off course, and to turn around when a row ends.

Grift says this sort of technology could someday replace more expensive equipment or backbreaking human labor.


Eventually, what I'd like to do is make a completely automated farm. Where you could have a farming operation which is done at least 90 percent or more by robots, and hopefully that will show people that it can be done; and then whether it's really going to be adopted and whether it's economically feasible, we'll have to look at that. But otherwise, that's sort of the aim for the future.

I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.

Making Sense of the Research

In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, it seemed that most human tasks would eventually be taken over by gigantic, factory-sized machines. Today, the goal is to make technology smaller, more efficient, and more affordable.

That's the spirit driving projects like Grift's. He says that most farmers can't afford to experiment with high-tech, expensive super-robots that can do a whole job using just one or two machines. Even if a farmer can afford a robot like that, what happens if it breaks? He or she is faced with a choice between writing off a huge investment or sinking even more money into it.

The beauty of systems like this is their redundancy: you have many, many robots working together on the same task. Each robot is similar to the others, and if one breaks down, the whole operation continues without a hitch. And replacing or fixing single robots is relatively affordable.

As Grift explains, another advantage of using robot teams is that they can either spread themselves out or team up to maximize efficiency. For example, a fleet of robots might be dispersed all across a farm to look for weeds. Then, anytime a robot finds a patch of weeds, it can radio for help to nearby robots, who arrive to help destroy the weeds.

Grift isn't the only one using the "smaller, cheaper, more" strategy for robot design. Some researchers are developing small, insect-like robots for everything from military reconnaissance missions to explorations of hard-to-reach places. Small, relatively cheap robots have already revolutionized the exploration of the solar system: the twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity have crawled all over the surface of Mars, uncovering lots of valuable information; future interplanetary missions could deploy larger fleets of smaller robots.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What are the advantages of using a great number of small, inexpensive robots, compared to using one or two large, expensive ones?
  2. What are some of the challenges in designing robots that can work outdoors? Include examples not mentioned in the story.
  3. What tasks, other than the ones you've already heard about, might be tackled by fleets of small robots?
  4. Under what circumstances would more expensive, high-tech machines be preferable to robots like these?

For Educators

Watch as This Roach-Inspired Robot Can Wriggle through Tight Spaces and withstand pressure 900 times its own body weight at Science Online. Scientists hope it will be useful in search and rescue operations, particularly in earthquake zones where rubble poses a problem.

Asteroid Eaters: Robots to Hunt Space Rocks, from CNN Tech, reports on a proposed fleet of nuclear-powered robots that could destroy dangerous asteroids headed for earth.

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