Robotic Farming Means More Corn For Everyone

You know we’re all going to starve, right? If the world’s population keeps growing exponentially and food production grows linearly, we’re eventually going to find out what Soylent Green is made of. This is where [David Dorhout]’s Prospero robot farmer comes in. [David] has come up with the idea of using small autonomous robots to plant, tend and harvest fields. Right now, he’s working on stage 1: planting seeds.

A swarm of six-legged Prospero robots are dispatched to a field. There, each member of the swarm plants seeds one at a time. The robots keep in contact with each other over a wireless connection to ensure the optimal planting pattern for an entire field.

The Prospero prototype is based on the Parallax Propeller with a Ping ultrasonic sensor used to avoid obstacles. Each hexapod is equipped with a bunch of seeds, a small auger, and a supply of fertilizer for the future corn plant. The next step in the plan is to build a ‘tending’ robot that will monitor and apply nutrients if needed. Check out the Prospero video after the break.


82 thoughts on “Robotic Farming Means More Corn For Everyone

  1. While interesting from a robotics perspective, this In no way addresses the problems of food availability in the face of rampant population growth. The manpower necessary for modern commercial scale farming is so small as to be trivial, given what a single individual can accomplish in a day with a large combine. The cost component is really not at issue, as (disregarding social class and poverty problems) average people in developed nations are more then capable of affording food stuffs. The real problem is that of arable land, a finite resource that isn’t going to be solved by automating the farming process with swarm robots. Seems like there are more worthwhile robotics applications to be researching…

    and cost

    1. A large industrial scale farm is a problem, not a solution. Monocultures are increasingly prone to pests and other disasters, as well as soil nutrient depletion. Gear like combines and large tractors are also disastrous for the soil, compacting it.

      Growing crops with GM or chemical/petrolium-based fertiliser is also detrimental over time, as has now been conclusively shown in a long-term study. See

      In short, we need to appreciate that doing something at a larger scale is not always the better way. Everything has an optimal scale. Doing smaller scale farming is not a problem at all, and would have higher yield with less mess/waste/disaster.

  2. if you think that is future, you should try and learn sth about agricultural science. Robotic Milking Systems, GPS steered tractors, and so on.

    i saw robots doing fieldwork live at the agritechnica ’09

  3. Not shooting down this project or anything as it really is an amazing task, if completed, but I don’t believe the limit of the food supply is based on production.

    As it stands, farm machinery is extremely productive, requiring less man power and getting tasks done faster with every year. What is limited, however, is land being used for farming.

    I’m personally skeptical that a robot swarm could be economically used to replace farm equipment for planting and harvesting considering that we currently have equipment that can plant as high as 50 acres (over 2 million square feet) per hour and harvest at around 13 acres per hour. However, I think the idea has a lot of potential in the form of tending where a crop could be continuously monitored and cared for by a swarm.

    At the very least, the swarm could be used for continuous crop and soil monitoring. That alone would be a huge benefit for maximizing group productivity.

      1. Most farmers are already trying to maximize what they can grow per given acre. Or at least, not many go by the theory of, “I can always buy more land.” ;)

        I think it would be neat to break up farming operations into smaller bits and pieces of land so that the effect isn’t quite so… broad. As it is, a lot of focus seems placed on using larger tracts of land for farming.

        It does make sense when you look at how a farmer must move equipment from field to field and how much time is consumed transporting, but on the other hand it seems to have a negative toll on the land, as that article you linked points out.

        It used to be that there was a lot more small operations, but anymore the cost of land, equipment, and operating has forced farmers to either expand their production or shut down and walk away.

  4. There’s no way this will be anywhere near as efficient as traditional large-scale farming. Perhaps he should turn his attention to growing produce in areas where it currently does not, like deserts and oceans.

    1. not true in ALL cases. Watching the discovery channel it appears as though at least some areas almost exclusively pay “harvesters for hire” during the harvest time because it’s cheaper than owning the equipment outright, or paying for a worker to do it.

      I wouldn’t doubt if the same thing, at least in these areas holds true for planting time.

      So if these are more cost effective, in those areas at least, it might be feasible that either A: the contract work goes towards maintenance of these little buggers(which would provide more stable work than just plant/harvest time), or B: farms end up with onsite support staff for them.

      but this is 100% armchair with my research being “I watched a discovery channel show” and doesn’t appear to be the person’s reasons for doing the project.. sooo yeah.

      but maybe sure would be nice…

    2. It’s not that simple.

      Increased food production would ideally decrease the cost, increase the availability, and increase the reliable availability of food. This tends to have a stabilizing effect on society such that other sectors are more likely to keep or add jobs.

      The robots require operation, monitoring, and maintenance while the area they farm may not be reasonable to keep in production at the same scale or at all through other means.

      Furthermore, significant increases in agricultural productivity which propagate through distribution to market fall under the economics of wealth creation, which is not a zero-sum process.

    1. Exactly. When I read, “optimal planting pattern,” I pictured corn plants growing not in the traditional straight rows that we see today, but perhaps something more like the arrangement of sunflower seeds growing in the head of a sunflower.

    2. It’s possible. Farmers are already employing variable rate planting and application and soil surveys to only plant what the land supports and apply what the land needs. Although this is generally more to reduce wasted consumables than it is to maximize production per acre.

      They do already employ some methods such as planting at different row spacing (IE, 15 inches for soybeans, 30-36 inches for corn). Otherwise the crop crowding one another can reduce yield. I suspect that as planters continue to develop, pattern planting would be feasible. I’d think a honeycomb pattern would maximize plants per acre.

  5. I can’t see how a swarm of robots would be more efficient than a couple of John Deere tractors with the right attachments. However, I could foresee a use for these robots in a rooftop garden or hydroponics farm. A garden Roomba.

  6. @Maxzillian

    I agree with you completely. They’d have to be very inexpensive to purchase, and operate, to compete with traditional farm implements.

    The one area where there is probably potential for these could be in places where traditional implements can’t be used to plant or harvest.

    You might be able to use land that’s normally not usable, or requires lots of work by hand.

    1. I agree 100%. I think where these could shine is locations that are difficult to access by the usual equipment. Alternatively, these may have applications for small plots that may only feed a relative handful of people, but would have a smaller toll on the local land. The only trouble with that is when you consider the cost of transport, small plots would only be feasible as a local food supply.

  7. Just tossing in my two cents, but it seems like this would be incredibly useful for nipping infections and pests in the bud, so to speak. As I understand it, two parts of the unsustainable components of modern agriculture are pest control and fertilizer derived from petrochemicals (don’t quote me on that) — wouldn’t such a robot be able to grow crops efficiently without having to rely on as much pesticides (i.e. isolating plants/fields that require treatment vs. the blanket approach) or fertilizer (e.g. in finding the most effective heterogenous distribution of plants through a field vs. a monoculture)?

  8. The problem isn’t growing enough food, it’s greed.

    How much food is destroyed for better prices? How much is wasted because it’s not attractive or saleable? I lived for many years in a farming county in CA, and so many farms were being sold to housing developers they had to put all building on hold to let the infrastructure catch up.

    On the other hand, I’d love to see individuals working on getting food plants to grow in more extreme environments, such as deserts or highly saline soils. I once played with the idea of breeding a highly drought tolerant tomato, but never got around to it.

  9. Ironically a growing population will shouldn’t need tech like this, in-itself his tech doesn’t increse the amount of food that will be made available. Notice how this swarm isn’t any different than a swarm of humans, equipped with implements? Already equipped with pretty power computer, capable of communicating with other members of the swarm? Capable of self replication until there numbers truly reach the number where there host can’t sustain them, at which point the host will survive, and the numbers of the swarm will naturally die of to the point where the host can sustain. All tech can do decrease the the time until the swarm of humans reaches the point where the host cant sustain them, and maximize the number humans the host can sustain. When it gets down to it no matter what makes up the swarm, the amount of food the swarm can produce is dependent on the amount of land the human swarm is willing to dedicate to food production.

    I have nothing against David Dorhout as an individual, but IMO his ideas reinforces a system where individuals far removed any part of producing the food they eat as a group amass more wealth( and the power that comes with amassed wealth) than the groups that actual put the food in the market. The first groups tell us that for man to pick up a tool, and do for himself is a step backward, and the second group who should know better keeps eating that BS.

  10. I can’t can’t believe such a bunch of intelligent guys can be so economically retarded.

    Scarcity causes prices to rise. As food supplies diminish, prices rise. Eventually, food would be so expensive that people would not be able to afford to procreate. And it won’t happen over night either. It would happen long before all these lame doomsday scenarios.

    What people should really be worried about is price inflation caused by the government and the Fed devaluing the dollar. We’re headed for extreme inflation, especially in food prices. But it’s caused by the government devaluing your money to pay its debts. You can guarantee the MSM will blame it on overpopulation and global warming, and from the looks of it, you guys will fall for it- hook, line and sinker.

    1. Nonsense. The fed is pre-capitalizing banks for the next several decades of loan losses resulting from deregulation less than a decade ago. Inflation is not the concern, DEFLATION is, this is what the Fed is trying to prevent. Another 5~7 years of median home price declines at the minimum….

      1. Home prices were over inflated anyway, and benefited a few, whilst pushing up debt and causing people to borrow from more into the future. Wall Street has poisoned the system with all the virtual money (borrowed from the future) benefiting those who can play the system.

        And corn gets converted more and more into fuel.

    2. “Eventually, food would be so expensive that people would not be able to afford to procreate”

      Good grief accusing others of being retarded, based on doomsday scenarios, but promote one in the same comment. The inability to feed the next generation has yet to show even a modest voluntary reduction in procreation in those parts of the word where food crisis’ exist. Not likely to because industrialized agriculture in the US see those areas as export markets with profit potential, with no concern about the overall living standards of those living in those markets. Industrial Agriculture in the USA creates, and support US foreign policy. I too expect when serious inflation hits, the MSM will blame everyone, but those who cause it, because as the corporate press it’s a tool of the plutocracy. Practically every financial crisis experience in the US is the result of activity in the financial sector, including those on Wall Street, and commodity market speculators.

      1. How is a gradual, natural reduction the same as Soylent Green.

        Populations in the 3rd world remain afloat because of government intervention and dumping of food on them. My point is, that in a free market, which doesn’t exist, these things problems would solve themselves peacefully.

        You’re half right about Wall St., but they are enabled by the recklessness of fiat money and a government that doesn’t enforce property rights.

    3. >”Yeah, deflation sucks. I hate when I wake up in the morning and everything is cheaper.”

      Well, tens of millions of seniors and others living on fixed income might tend to agree, as they don’t get any cost of living adjustments from Social Security when prices fall. This year was the first in several where they actually got an increase. These people tend to vote, too.

      You might want to educate yourself a bit on the Great Depression as well, as deflationary forces and the government’s refusal to intervene played a pretty big role in that crisis…

      To put the current rate into more of a historical perspective:×217.jpg

      1. I’m not getting you. If I’m living on a fixed income(say, $100 a week) and suddenly, bread costs, say, decrease by 25%, that frees up some of my food budget for other things.

        I’ve never understood how inflation is good for an economy. Can you explain this, please?

      2. >”I’ve never understood how inflation is good for an economy. Can you explain this, please?”

        Why would I explain something I didn’t say?
        Who said inflation was “good for an economy”?

        The Fed has increased the money supply through quantitative easing (two rounds so far) to stave off DEFLATION. Historically, 3~4% annual percentage increases the cpi are what most economists consider to be ideal. The referenced chart clearly shows a temporary drop in prices coinciding with conservative’s liquidity crisis of 2008, which most likely would have continued unabated had the Fed not intervened. Remember, monetary policy is a tool the Fed uses to control inflation. The risk of deflation still stands as a greater risk than inflation at this point, as conservative’s property bubble still has to fully unwind. Expect a third round of QE at some point. …..

      3. Deflation being the opposite of Inflation(Deflation refers to the valuation of currency, corresponding to decreasing prices and Inflation refers to the devaluation of currency, corresponding to increasing prices), if you are trying to combat Deflation, then you are attempting to promote Inflation.

        I’ve read in several places that Inflation is good and Deflation is bad. Quantatative Easing is a technique for increasing Inflation.

        Once again, can you please explain to me how Inflation is good?(or at least be more clear about how Deflation is bad than a poorly-formed post which I honestly can’t make heads or tails out of) I understand the baser points of economic theory, but I don’t understand how it’s beneficial to reduce the buying power of one’s currency.

        Since you are so obsessed with combatting Deflation(which, as I mentioned before, is the same as promoting Inflation), I assume you know something I don’t. I’m giving you the deal of a lifetime: a chance to convince a rather hard-core Conservative(if I do say so myself) that Capitalism is one of the great evils of the world. You’d be a fool not to take it.

      4. >”I’ve never understood how inflation is good for an economy. Can you explain this, please?”

        Why would I explain something I didn’t say?
        Who said inflation was “good for an economy”?

        The Fed has increased the money supply through quantitative easing (two rounds so far) to stave off DEFLATION. Historically, 3~4% annual percentage increases the cpi are what most economists consider to be ideal. The referenced chart clearly shows a temporary drop in prices coinciding with conservative’s liquidity crisis of 2008, which most likely would have continued unabated had the Fed not intervened. Remember, monetary policy is a tool the Fed uses to control inflation. The risk of deflation still stands as a greater risk than inflation at this point, as conservative’s property bubble still has to fully unwind. Expect a third round of QE at some point. …..

  11. You are actually wrong – correct stament is that the population of so called developing nations is growing exponentially.

    Population growth in Europe has remained linear and is quadratic in US.

    This realisation made me really sad.

    1. considering farm equipment costs hundreds of thousands (old and heavily used) to several million dollars and is designed to do as much as possible as fast as possible with no regard to fuel efficiency at all im surprised how few people know how expensive it is to plant corn

      if it was not for subsidies farmers would be at a massive loss, at current market prices its not even possible not to go into debt with seed, chemical and fuel prices soaring every year

      that being said im curious to how much more efficient an army of tiny, or at least moderate size robots powered at least partially through solar panels planting a crop can be

      before industrialization it used to be done by hand using large numbers of people walking in rows down a field, i would imagine the same parallel behavior being done with robots

  12. hexapods greatly over complicate this system. The only reason to favor hexapods is when traveling over unpredictable land(boulder fields, urban rubble, mine fields, etc), or when stepping on the plants is to be avoided. For the planting stage it would greatly simplify the robot and improve reliability if prospero used tracks or oversized tires.
    As it stands most farm lands are flat and have soft to muddy soils which is another vote against a legged robot. Oversized tires or tracks greatly reduce the pressure on the ground which not only enables the machinery to move with less effort( ie, less fuel) but reduces compaction to the soil allowing for more even nutrient and gas exchange with the roots.

  13. @2:36 Robot taking a Dump :0

    I have to say that, around here, more farmers are worried about keeping the farm, often working eight hour shifts in the city, farming all night, I have with mine own eyes witnessed this, and personally know ranchers and farmers, (both vegetable and dairy).

    The TAXES are tremendous, just to be privileged to grow food for You, The govs control the seed to the point that you WILL lose the farm and spend SERIOUS prison time if you hold seed over to next year, suburban home building constantly encroaches (then the homeowners complain about the smell. HELLO!!! YOU moved next to the swine-farm.), oft getting local govs to make up new fines to get the farm to move.

    Technological advancements, I.E; Genetically Modified Organisms. Jellyfish-Potatoes, Rat-Soybeans (which, by the by, are no longer natural, GM-Soy eradicated REAL soy worldwide, BioGene companies touted quite loudly when that happened), the list goes on, et cetera.

    (How could/would one de-modify genetically, Anyhow, once the gene was destroyed?)

    In the oceans we get algae, seaweed, and fish-stuffs.

    Optimal planting wouldst be mixed crops, I.E; carrots and tomatoes, roses and garlic, et cetera.

    Someone built a robot that catches and incinerates slugs in gardens (was in an older National Geographic).

    TAXES cause the prices to rise, and it is undeniable, and supposedly voluntary.
    But that is assuming you lived in a country with LAWS, whereas, like “citizens” of the united states,we are most of us actually in corporations.

    Finally, europe’s population HAS been expanding with the rapid influx of islam (More wives, more progeny).

  14. @Mike… actually, I think economics itself is pretty retarded. It seems to rely heavily on Magic Formula Fallacies ( )

    Your own assertion (for example) that rising food prices mean people cannot afford to procreate, is dismally-obviously at odds with “what actually happens”. Without even looking at the figures – which show that child-mortality is the main driver of exploding populations, even the simplest, most cursory glance at starving populations shows that they are having a lot more children than over-fed nations.

    But then that’s economics – ignoring facts in favour of formulas.

    so what we should “really be worried about” is:

    1) climate change
    2) mass-extinctions
    3) peak oil

    American inflation has fuck-all to do with anything.

    1. Actually, “economics” at its core is quite simple and doesn’t really require a lot of math to understand.

      *warning: incoming brain dump.*

      Money, it turns out, is a lot like energy.(which itself is a lot like water.)

      1: It can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted to other forms.
      2: It really only does anybody any good if it’s moving.
      3: It has a natural tendency to flow from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration.

      Now, people have objections to all 3 of those points, so I’m going to defend the two most contentious.(The second is fairly obvious.)

      3: Money has a tendency to flow from areas of higher concentration to areas of lower concentration.

      Most people will argue against this, because there is a rather intensely derogatory term for it: the “Trickle-down” theory, which is blamed for everything in the 1980’s, including the housing bubble, the disappearing Middle Class, and the fact that Full House wasn’t cancelled after its 3rd season. Yes, the “rich” tend to get “richer,” but that has less to do with natural monetary gravity and more to do with a good work ethic. People who get rich rarely do so because the money falls into their laps, and those who do generally end up worse off financially than they were before.

      I’ll simply posit you this question. Who is more likely to spend money: someone with $5000, or some with $5?

      Yeah, that makes it pretty obvious, doesn’t it? There’s a reason there are entire industries targeted at the stupid-filthy rich, but few which aim to take money from poor people.

      1: Money exists in a finite amount, and can be neither created, nor destroyed.

      I answer this one second because while it’s the more important, applicable, and obvious of the two points I intend to prove, it’s also the one which requires more explanation.

      “But wait,” you doubtless say, “If we took everyone and gave them double whatever money they have, that would increase the amount of money, wouldn’t it?”

      No, actually, the amount of money in the system hasn’t increased. The value of each piece of money has decreased. By exactly 50%, to be precise.

      Sure, you now have $2 for every $1 you had, but if you go out the next morning, you’ll find that all of the stores have also doubled their prices. Your buying power hasn’t changed one bit, it just takes more “monetary units” to accomplish the same task.

      Why is this?

      Because “money” is an illusion. What we’re actually concerned about is *value.*

      I’m sure you’re familiar with a concept called “Barter.” You have a cow, I have six chickens. I decide that I would rather have a cow than six chickens, so I offer to trade you my six chickens for your cow. You decide you’d rather have the six chickens than the cow, so you agree.

      Well, livestock is rather large and hard to cart around, so why don’t we abstract this by one level. I’ll draw up a ticket which indicates ownership of my chickens, and you’ll draw up a ticket indicating ownership of your cow, and we’ll exchange those instead. Then we can come and pick up our respective livestock when it’s more convenient.

      The tickets, then, have the “value” of one cow or six chickens, respectively.

      OK, so after parting ways, I encounter a man selling a cart. I offer him your cow(my cow, now) in exchange for his cart. He accepts. I hand over the ticket representing the cow, which he can now present to you and get said cow, and I leave for home carrying his cart.

      Well, that sounds an awful lot like a monetary system, doesn’t it? That’s because it is.

      A “Dollar” doesn’t exist. That piece of paper you have with a picture of George Washington on the front(or the coin with a bird on it, if you’re Canadian) isn’t a dollar, it’s a ticket which represents a dollar the same way the ticket in the barter example represents a cow. It has the buying weight of a “dollar,” which is an imaginary financial unit of measure. It has value because you know that you can give it to someone, and they will accept it as having value.

      Everything has value. A dollar bill has value. A glass of water has value. The glass the water is in has value. Your time has value, depending on how you use it. My time, for example, has a monetary weight equal to around twenty-four dollars if I’m writing computer code, twelve dollars if I’m laying tile, sawing wood, or performing other construction jobs, and less than seven dollars if I’m saying “Would you like fries with that?”

      And it has very little value if I sit here and type out an economics primer. I’m certainly not getting paid for it. On the other hand, the leisure time I’m spending is apparently worth more to me than time spent working, because I’m clearly not working right now, so I’m sacrificing the value I could be earning with work.

      I should stop now…

      Huh. That almost didn’t have any math at all, magic or otherwise, did it?

      1. >”2: It really only does anybody any good if it’s moving.”

        Agreed, like on 9-15-08, when the largest bankruptcy in the history of the world occurred, and banks quit lending TO EACH OTHER, for nearly three days in a row. All because conservatives deregulated the banking industry eight years previous, allowing those on Wall Street to take on enormous risk, that otherwise would not have been legal…..

      2. What you explained is how commerce/trade takes place. Yes the social science of economics(micro-economics?) is describe as an attempt to describe that commerce. Personally I feel the social sciences are nothing more than philosophies, subject to the whims of man to fulfill the desires of those with the power to manipulate outcomes for their own benefit. Everyone treat everyone fairly in commerce the world will be fine for a long time to come. Not that my crystal ball is any better than the next persons.

      3. Not being sarcastic. But Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930’s can be traced back to The Great Depression, another era where a lack of government regulations created an environment of unfettered casino capitalism (the free marketeers of the 1920’s). Ironically the laws that conservatives gutted at the beginning of this century were put in place in 1933, around the time the economic conditions in Germany led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party….

      4. @N0LKK:
        Ah, but you see, there’s this funny thing about social sciences, or the study of human behavior.

        We’re all humans.

        So a better understanding of human behavior can help explain why some people act the way they do(what drives a woman to kill off her own children?) which in turn will help us treat each other “fairly” in the world of commerce… or at very least, set up systems which are resistant to “unfair” behavior.

        The definition of “fair” or “unfair” in this case is, sadly, a matter of some interpretation which I rather doubt we’ll ever get anybody to agree on. Hence, politics: many blood-sucking parasites.

  15. From a research perspective I can see little wrong with this project. In research you always test in a known environment (how the hell else would you benchmark). A bot like this has the potential to revolutionise farming. Once proven on a conventional field, the same robot can be deployed anywhere.

    Suppose you have mountainous land. Now suppose on this land planting by tractor is unfeasible (lets say 50+% of your seed will fall on barren ground)a bot sufficiently trained can identify usable ground, plant, seed and harvest that ground. A bot like that could utilise 1000s of acres of ground which would otherwise be unusable, over a 25 year period, a bot like that would prove more valuable than any tractor!

  16. “Everybody” will not starve. The unlucky will starve while those born in the right country, to the right family, etc… will still have food.

    Hypothetically, if our means of wealth distribution actually worked to spread the food out more evenly would we all go hungry?

    I doubt it. If the food was all spread out evenly then there would be more demand. There are a lot of unused farm fields out there, maybe even as much as there are used. If demand rises, price rises. Yes, this does make the food harder to reach for the poor. It also means more incentive for people to start working those fields. And incentive to open new fields. Maybe fewer fields would be getting built on top of. (usually big expensive homes, with no yards and no buyers lately it would seem)

    Take a look at the history of the colonies in what became the southern US. They had a crop which was high in demand. People responded to that demand, they grew the crop everywhere, even in the cities. It was in people’s yards, in whatever they could find to use as a container, even old boots, etc… Of course, their crop was a little less nutritious. It was tobacco.

    If food becomes scarce I think we will see a period where everyone starts growing it, and farms are on the rise rather than the decline. When we see that it is time to worry that we might run out.

    1. The great famines of the past 100 years and even the Irish potatoe famine were political, i.e. a government blocked attempts to alleviate the food shortage. Examples, Ireland was exporting fattened cattle to England during the potatoe famine, the Irish people were (heavily) taxed for any vegetables they grew other than potatoes, the governments of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Biafra were politically motivated to starve peoples into submission. Now if our little hexapods can solve that problem, as well as urban sprawl…

  17. Money and wealth will likely crumble first. I’m as capitalist as the next Westerner, but in modern times, with such a high proliferation of self ownership of land, can you really see the “rich” relying on the “poor”‘s gardens to provide food?

    The wealth swing would be so violent as to render class systems inert, equalising everything and bringing us back to subsistence farming to survive==no research==human stagnation. Someone smarter than me has undoubtedly thought the this through and seen a more desirable solution.

  18. Somehow I doubt his vision is for something that can compete with a combine a year from now. Rather, it requires these things to become dirt cheap. In that case the advantage is that you will be able to maximize productive land area, planting and maintaining crops in areas that currently are unfeasible for crop production.
    In the long run, something like this could become an integral part of humanities first forays beyond earth, helping to grow crops on another planet where manpower is truly scarce and building something like a combine is prohibitively expensive.

      1. @ willyshop What’s the point of nay saying? Nothing more than pointing out potential errors in planning. And IMO in this instance going down a road that’s completely unnecessary, by doing something all those extra humans can do, and is something humans have been doing since they figured out they didn’t have to rely on nature to plant next years crop.

  19. They will be perfect for planting and harvesting drugs in remote areas, or in among a legitimate farmers crop :P

    Other than that I don’t see how these could come close to competing with current farm equipment. Think how many you would need and how far away from home base they need to be. It would be a full time job retrieving and maintaining them.

  20. I agree that the big question is not what the robots can do in general, it’s whether a swarm of robots is easier and less expensive to make, run, and maintain than the traditional equipment capable of doing the same job.

    Granted the barrier to entry is lower for small robots than for 1200 HP tractors. Granted it takes a lot more damage to put a swarm out of commision than a single tractor. But maintenance scales with the size of the swarm. It’s entirely possible to spend more time, money, and energy to build, run, and maintain a swarm than you’d spend on traditional equipment.

    It’s interesting research, and there may well be places where robots like this end up being useful. I’m not sure I see this as a promising candidate for solving the problems of world hunger though.

    It’s hard to improve on a system that’s been aggressively optimized for several thousand years.

    1. This is simply another stage of that aggressive optimization you’re referring to. I don’t really know enough about agriculture to have a good idea of how useful something like this could be, but I’m eager to see where it goes.

  21. I think a tracked robot would be far more effective then a hexapod.
    This could be useful to space colonists in tending crops as labor would be short there.

    As for population growth it can be solved just spend more on family planning.
    Some countries may go as far as making some sorta bug that causes auto immune sterility in the groups who over breed or institute a one child only policy.

      1. Some governments most likely would take such actions see China.
        I’d only consider it if education about contraceptives failed but then even an action like the PRCs is better then doing nothing at all.

  22. What everyone appears to be missing is that these bots really would be perfect for tending small scale crops in areas you could not use large scale traditional farm implements. Say… Rooftops? I’d like to see your combine ascend ten flights of stairs in the middle of a metropolis. Also, Runaway was AWESOME. Well, it was, when I was six.

  23. Okay as an example problem for robotics.
    Not at all clear that they are tackling any major problem relating to reducing cost of farming, food and certainly not addressing food shortage/overpopulation.

    “Man is the lowest cost 150-pound non-linear
    all-purpose computer system that can be
    mass-produced by unskilled labor.”

    -Apocryphal NASA report on why we send humans to the moon instead of robots

    Big limiting factors on agricultural production are things like decreasing supplies of available fresh watter (we are depleting aquifers, etc.) and loss of soils (something like a few % per year if memory serves).

    Now if the robots could assist in permaculture (e.g., getting away from tilled fields, etc.) might have something. (But still can they be made to produce more energy than they consume.)

    Of course if one really wants to address starvation the obvious place to start is contraceptive technology. Both in making it more available, especially in areas with rapid population growth and intensive resource usage, like the US, and in researching improvements to the technology.

    Population growth being exponential (absent limiting factors) is an observation about the nature of reproduction. The business about food increasing linearly was more mathematical convenience and wishful thinking. (There is nothing in the biology to assure even that level of growth.)

  24. Where these could help is by somehow analyzing the health of each individual stalk of the plant then alerting another robot which comes and gives it more water or fertilizer or something. I dunno, I’m just making this up, but basically they could monitor things on a much smaller scale that humans can’t do thus optimizing the output.

  25. The many posts about this idea being useless due to the amazing efficiency of factory farming are sadly ignorant of basic soil science.

    Soil is not a mere random assortment of chemicals. The soil is a complex community of a myriad of species both multicellular and single-celled. This complex ecosystem is easily disturbed by mechanical forces and guess what a tractor’s wheel exerts when it rolls over the soil smashing it into a fraction of its former space and eliminating vital capillaries of air and promoting the growth of anaerobic bacteria.

    This soil damage then creates the requirement for plowing the soil to aerate it since the air pockets were destroyed by the tractor wheel during the previous season. The plowed soil is then further disrupted spoiling the soil ecosystem yet again. The disrupted soil abused in this manner quickly becomes infertile as we saw in the 1930s dust bowl scenario of the Midwest.

    To counteract these effects, petroleum based synthetic fertilizers are added. This allows certain species of plants to grow in the largely destroyed soil ecosystem but does little to revitalize the original network of interacting organisms that originally constituted the basis of the soil.

    Tractor based mechanical farming in the style of the twentieth century is not a sustainable practice and the problem goes back to the physical specification of the tractors themselves.

    Moving to a smaller mechanical systems would not only eliminated the soil damage created by rolling multi-ton tractors over the soil, it would also make it possible to farm in ways that mixed nitrogen fixing crops in amongst crops that were formerly grown as monoculture crops so that alternating years to allow the soil to rest with a green manure crop would become unnecessary.

    Furthermore, if the crops were also weeded and tended individually by such machines, it would eliminate the need for herbicides and potentially even pesticides.

    This would make all farming organic farming and while it may be legitimate to criticize the marketing of organic produce at the retail level under the current system of agriculture and retail distribution, it is a simple matter of observation to see that an organically grown vegetable is often tastier and more enjoyable to eat. If we can have better, more nutritious food that makes better use of the existing land then we certainly should make every effort to do so.

  26. Not sure why planting robots are needed. Don’t plating tractors already drive at a constant speed dumping seeds at specific intervals? That way the exact same thing is achieved hundreds of times faster than a small swarm of robots and just as efficiently.

  27. I never understood why the term “urban sprawl” is used to describe the problem of suburban sprawl eroding the amount of land available for agriculture. In the event we had the population density that would come with urban sprawl, the impact on agriculture would have been, and will be much less. Sorta academic because that’s not going to happen. Yes the policies of government do play a huge role in famine.

    1. I don’t know why it is called “URBAN sprawl” either, maybe it is because sub-urban is a tied to urban. i.e. you can’t have a sub-urban community that isn’t tied (economically, if nothing else) to an urban community. Yes, urban sprawl (putting up another skyscraper that will house 1000-10,000 people would have far less impact on reducing the agricultural land it is built on than a suburban tract. But the suburban and urban are tied together, as a city grows, the surrounding communities grow as well. Places restricted by physical limits, Hong Kong comes to mind, are forced to grow vertically, but the nearby mainland is growing “suburbanally” as well.

  28. If robot tech increased substantially and price dropped dramatically as well then a swarm could definitely be used to combat invasive pest and weed varieties which could dramatically increase harvest and food security and stability without chemicals. Autonomous identification of pests disease weeds would take considerable processing power. Harvesting overnight for morning pickup would mean actually being able to have *riper* produce. And while current methods of planting harvest are highly efficient: less chemicals and higher yields of crops that are difficult or impossible to grow without intensive management may become feasible.

  29. The issue might be to right size the robots, for weed and pest control and maintainance human to horse size robots may be more useful. The ability to carry a payload (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides etc would be useful). With weeds becoming resistant to chemical control, a robotic weed destroyer that used heat, concentrated light light or lasers or mechanics for control would be very useful especially when used in conjunction with conventional and biological control. Long duration, low cost and high reliability would be essential

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