Guelph Farmers Market - Image Credit Lloyd Alter
by Lloyd Alter, Toronto
Just when we are all getting excited about local food and hipster farmers, Emily Sohn of Discovery News tells us that in fact, robots might be taking over. The latest robots can handle the difficult stuff that requires careful, labour intensive picking, like grapes and strawberries. They are also immune to pesticides and chemicals and can replace itinerant workers.
Sohn quotes one researcher from a country where the itinerant workers are now in short supply:
"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."
It appears to be a difficult task, needing complex algorithms, multi-spectral cameras, intelligent sensing systems and complicated grasping tools. But it solves a real problem:
In many cases, there are challenges finding labor to do some of the harvesting of strawberries and other fruits and vegetables," [agricultural engineer Bernie] Engel said. "It's hard work. There's a timeliness factor, where you can't wait a week. You need lots of labor for fairly short periods of time, which creates real challenges for keeping people employed in a sustainable manner."
One has to wonder about the future of our food. Yesterday Jaymi pitched Sunless Farming Touted as Answer to World Food Problems; today it's farms may soon be staffed by autonomous robots.
Ruben Anderson pointed out in response to Jaymi's post that " A century ago a farmer could spend one calorie of energy and grow 100 calories of food." How much energy does it take to build a robot? How much chemical fertilizer and pesticide do we have to use? Instead, How many different crops can we grow so that work loads can be spread out, and why not pay a farm worker a decent wage and pay the farmer a decent price for his produce?