Thursday, March 3, 2016

How we will tend our crops in 2030: robotic weeder

Researchers down in australia have created a farming system that I think is the direction that farming ought to go - and probably will go.  It's a robotic weeder.

The basic idea I'd like to see implemented is a lightweight robot - think 50 to 100lbs - that can find its way to the field, and then back from the field to its charging station.  each robot would trundle out and spend its battery time eradicating weeds, and then go back and get charged.

These things should be as cheap as possible.  Rugged enough to last 10 or 15 years; I was looking at new tractors the other day, and some of them run upwards of $300,000.00 - I'd like to see one of these robot weeders at $2,000 or less -- so you could buy 150 of these units for about the same price as  your tractor.  Make 'em modular, so when some part breaks  you unplug it and put on a replacement part, and cheap enough that you stamp your foot when the bull pushes it into the ditch, but you don't cry or call the insurance company.

The best part about these robots is that they can be run on solar, and they eliminate or greatly reduce  the use of herbicides.  Heck, with better vision the robot could probably pick bugs off the plants, too...

The goal here is to take the task that we current either use chemicals to solve, or use hand-labor at minimum wage, and automate it.  these little guys can bet out all day every day, rain or shine, and in theory produce crops that are pesticide and herbicide free.

To see what I'm talking about, check out this youtube video


JohnnyR said...

Don't you think weeds are beneficial? They are part of the bigger system. We don't worry about weeds in our management intensive grazing style. The weeds are mowed down by chickens, turkeys and beeves.

Creates less of an environmental footprint. Yes, it is Salatin-style.

Just saying ...

Bruce King said...

I think we're talking about different things here. You're talking about pasture where many different plants can comprise feed for a ruminant, and I'm talking about row crops. The last time you ate a salad I'm going to bet that it came from a field that was tilled and cultivated and sprayed with various types of herbicides and pesticides and kept basically weed-free. That field is what I'd like a robot to help us with.

The same is true for your house garden. It'd be cool to buy a garden bot that, loaded with seeds, would plant the garden and tend it for you. Like a roomba automatic vaccuum, but for plants.

Speaking to the "weeds in the pasture" issue though; many folks find that unless they're on top of their rotational grazing game that bare earth and undesirable plants (thistles, for instance with cattle, or tansy) spring up. If it's for your own livestocks consumption, you choose the level of weeds that are acceptable. But if it's for sale, as hay, for instance, the market will reject your weedy bales, and if you're out to make a profit, well, you just won't.

Nick in RI said...

I agree that we'll be seeing small-scale robots in our fields in the not-too-distant future. One impact is going to be that a lot of land will become productive again. The 20th century was all about bigger and bigger machines, which allowed farmers to produce more and more with less and less labor. If the machine is self-driving, bigger no longer makes any sense at all. A five-row planter is far more expensive and complicated than five single-row planters, if there's no labor savings to the bigger machine having several of the smaller ones makes more sense.

The bigger machine the more uniform the land needs to be, and the bigger the lots need to be. The northeast is full of farmland that is now abandoned. The land was productive for hundreds of years -- even thousands -- when it was worked by hand or with draft animals, but it was too rocky and hilly to be worked with machines. A smaller machine can just work between the rocks. The robot in the video needs about as much room as a person to move, but I'll predict the machines will go even smaller -- imagine how much land you could work with a machine the size of a rabbit, or a mouse!

Putting all of that land back into production will have a significant impact. Especially if the machines are small and cheap. After a hundred years of consolidation, family farming will take off again.