Robots on the Farm

//

THE GIST

- Autonomous agricultural robots that could identify, spray and pick individual fruits and vegetables may soon be a reality.

- New research focuses on the "brains" of the computers, teaching them to see and learn like human brains do.

- The work could help advance other fields, too, including robotic surgery and other medical applications.

Commercial farms of the future may be staffed by robots that will identify, spray and pick individual pieces of produce from plants, even when their targets are grapes, peppers and apples that are as green as the leaves that surround them.

As scientists in Israel and Europe get closer to this goal, experts say the work has a number of potential benefits. Autonomous agricultural robots could protect human workers from the harmful effects of handling chemicals by hand. And through a system of highly selective spraying, robots could reduce a farm's use of pesticides by up to 80 percent.

Robots could also offer a timely supply of labor in many places, where there simply aren't enough itinerant workers available at the right times in the harvesting cycle. Meanwhile, attempts to create robots that can see, grasp and learn could end up having widespread applications in medicine, video games and more.

And while scientists have been working to develop robots for agricultural labor for more than 20 years, a new project is taking a more cerebral approach. The goal is to teach computers to see like humans do and to get better at their jobs as they work and learn.

"The technology is ready, and now we can start seeing this penetrating into the market," said Yael Edan, an engineer and robotics researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "I would say there will definitely be robots out there in five years -- maybe not be on every farm, and maybe not for every farmer. I think now the time is there."

Modern commercial farms are already full of tractors with automated steering and machines that can milk cows and till soil. But zeroing in on individual fruits or vegetables is a much more challenging task. That's because the outdoor environment is unpredictable and ever-changing.

Each piece of produce, for example, has a unique shape, size, color and orientation, which means that a computer can't be programmed to simply search for a specific image. Shadows and light conditions change throughout the day and night, as well, making an individual object look different under various conditions. And green fruits and vegetables can look much like the leafy bushes or vines they grow on.