Robotics Firm Promises A 'Lights Out' Orchard

from the robofruit dept

The question "But who will pick our fruit?" is often heard during debates over unskilled immigration, as if that were somehow the crux of the issue. But a robotics company is looking to obviate this point by developing robots that can harvest orchards automatically without the need for direct human involvement. The company claims that while others have tried this in the past, it's developed a new efficient mechanism for efficiently finding and plucking fruit off trees. It's great when technology can bring efficiency and cost savings to business, and it would be great for farmers if they could avoid the precarious legal situation involved with hiring illegal immigrants (which many do in order to stay cost competitive). But there's good reason to be skeptical. Former GM CEO Roger Smith famously envisioned a "lights out" factory (so-called because a factory that employed only robots would have no need for lighting), but the vision never materialized under his watch. Undoubtedly, robotics has advanced in the nearly two decades since Smith was at the helm of GM, but as steady and consistent as factories are supposed to be, the world's top manufacturers haven't embraced this idea. There's probably room to make fruit picking more efficient, but at this point, completely getting rid of pickers sounds like a pipe dream.

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  • identicon
    Casper, 25 Jun 2007 @ 9:19am

    Not so easy...

    Assembly plants are a far more simple prospect to something as variable as an orchard. In an assembly plant you control how things move, where they come from, where they go, and the total environment. In an orchard things grow, ground changes, plants adjust and move. It's really going to take a very complicated device to be able to travel down a row, target a piece of fruit, know if it has a clear line to reach in and pluck it. The hardest part is that trees are not 2 dimensional, they don't have sides and they have interior volumes that contain fruit.

    It will be interesting to see how they plan to make this work and be cost effective.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Matthew, 25 Jun 2007 @ 9:21am

    The first step...

    of the Matrix is underway!

    I welcome our Silicon masters!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2007 @ 9:44am

      Re: The first step...

      I was thinking SkyNet...but your way works too.

      As far as cost effective, a farmer can pay millions of dollars to install this robotic whatever, or pay Pedro 35 cents an hour to do the same thing. I may be a skeptic, but I think illegal labor is going to be around for a while even if this thing works.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2007 @ 9:59am

        Re: Re: The first step...

        As far as cost effective, a farmer can pay millions of dollars to install this robotic whatever, or pay Pedro 35 cents an hour to do the same thing. I may be a skeptic, but I think illegal labor is going to be around for a while even if this thing works.


        Realistically there is no one in Oregon (at least not working on a farm of any significant size) paying under minimum wage. It's not worth the lawsuits. What they do most of the time instead is piece work. Generally they place a value of like $.50 per container of berries. Well, if your slow you average $5 an hour, if you fast you can average $12 an hour. A lot of farms prefer that because they don't care if you earn more per hour if your productivity matches. Just a little FYI.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Paul, 25 Jun 2007 @ 9:45am

    Maybe we shouldn't follow the visions of Roger Smith, but instead, follow those of Will Smith and take this approach very cautiously. Or next thing you know, we'll all have curfews! And every now and then someone will die.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Joe, 25 Jun 2007 @ 10:01am

    "And every now and then someone will die"

    Who should be responsible if a robot kills a human? The robot itself?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Deirdre, 25 Jun 2007 @ 10:59am

      Re:

      I don't think this will be a big problem. Mostly, robots will do the work that illegal aliens don't want to do. But I forsee a backlash from people who reach voice menus on the phone, when they hear the new option, "Press 3 to hear this message in binary."

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2007 @ 10:07am

    Don't be too certain. I'd have never guessed they'd coax a car in to navigating a twisting winding mountain road in only two years, but they did. The hardware is there. The processing power is there. The thing missing is the algorithm.

    If there is a flaw in their notion, I'd say its that they have visited a single company to get their solution. A contest that attracts a range of solutions would be more likely to net one or two workable solutions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    rEdEyEz, 25 Jun 2007 @ 10:42am

    ai, ai, yai !

    Cesar Chavez is spinning in his grave...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Jun 2007 @ 11:21am

    I'd imagine that an algorithm to physically traverse a tree would be structured very much like virtually traversing a tree... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tree_traversal

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Aaron, 25 Jun 2007 @ 1:00pm

    Don't be surprised to see these soon.

    They've got working models already.

    A recent breakthrough dealt with using one bot to ID all of the fruit, and a second bot to map the most efficient manner in retrieving said fruit.

    The first attempts were trying to map and pick at the same time and that wasn't very efficient. We are closer to this than you guys may think.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    boomhauer (profile), 25 Jun 2007 @ 1:22pm

    fruit mapping?

    Fruit maps = type "san fran" in google maps

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    dorpus, 25 Jun 2007 @ 2:26pm

    Robomex

    You mean we can make robots that dig holes under borders, drink lots of beer, hit women a lot, and play soccer?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    txjump, 25 Jun 2007 @ 3:08pm

    wow...

    ...some of you are just not nice!

    anyways, history repeats itself...doesnt anyone remember the lessons about the cotton gin, industrial revolution, the steam engine, gun manufacturing, the term Luddites...

    this cant be terribly shocking, by now we should be used to the idea of tasks getting mechanized. its been going on for hundreds of years.

    as far as technology, we have plently of 3d mapping technology out there. we have machines that can be used in surgery. we have hydrolic systems that can navigate terrain without tilting its load. its not unfathomable to imagine these technologies merging to create a system to pick fruit.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Junk, 25 Jun 2007 @ 7:11pm

    Old news

    I know that there are machines that harvest oranges. I watched a video on it the other day. It looks like they wait till most of the oranges are ripe then two machines travel side by side on either side of the tree. There is an apron that meshes between the machines to catch the oranges. Each machine has a tree of rotating horizontal tines that knock the oranges off the trees. Fruit smaller than golf ball size is not removed. It looked pretty efficient.

    There are also similar machines that harvest coffee. Their used in Australia and Hawaii. The machines are adjusted to only harvest a vertical range on the plant that corresponds to the location of the ripest beans.

    GM coffee plants are being developed that will ripen when activated so the entire plant can be harvested at once.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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