AgBots: a revolution in the making

An AgBot, an agricultural robot. Credit: QUT

The changes in agriculture over the last two centuries have been staggering. The time span is long enough for this change to have happened without people really noticing what was going on. Two centuries ago most of humankind was working in agriculture. The yield was limited (although much better than in the centuries before) but it required a lot of labour. The growth of the population required (requires) more and more food to be "produced" and agriculture was the main source of food.

A hundred years ago we saw the creation of the first industrial fertiliser, through the Haber process (from one of the two Nobel Prize chemists who invented it, Haber and Bosh) and fifty years later the diffusion of machines to till and harvest further improved the yield in agriculture and sharply decreased the need for manpower.  In the space of 50 years most of humanity no longer worked in agriculture, it moved to industry and service job.  In the time food demand multiplied by 4, agriculture manpower decreased 4 times. That is an increased in effectiveness in terms of yield per worker of 16 times.

IN spite of these changes and success the automation in agriculture lags behind what we have seen in several industries. This is going to change in the coming years under the synergistic actions of genetics, new ways of growing crops (including hydroponics and vertical fields) and massive employments of robots.

In this last area I have already posted a few news and I can see an increased frequency of news in this area, showing a growing interest in a shift from human to robotic based farming.

This is the case of this news coming from the Queensland University of Technology, QUT.

Researchers at QUT have demonstrated an AgBot, Agriculture root, that can plant, weed, maintain and harvest in a completely automated way. The work was funded by the State of Queensland in 2013 and now they can show their AgBots. 

Interestingly, the idea is not to have one Robot taking care of all that needs to be done. Rather, the vision is to have autonomous, cooperating, AgBots that together will tend the field. AgBots will leverage on sensors deployed in the field and will cooperate with drones. By exploiting cooperation it is possible to have simpler robots, that will cost less and be nimbler.

This is what is fascinating me most. We are seeing a shift, in several areas, where cooperation takes the upper hand. Rather than developing very complex (and costly) systems researchers are now trying to exploit networks of functionalities that all together creates and emergent behaviour. And this "emergent" behaviour is very sophisticated, shows intelligence and, in a way, it is free!

Author - Roberto Saracco

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