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Agricultural robots

Farm robots to make human ag workers obsolete within a decade

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: agricultural robots, job market, farming

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(NaturalNews) In the latter part of the 20th century, automation - the introduction of machines and "robots" designed to make mass production more effective - began taking over for human workers in American factories. With automation came efficiency, but that efficiency cost the country as well in terms of good-paying jobs.

Now, apparently, the same technology is about to take over America's fruited plains - robots, it seems, are all the rage down on the farm, and their introduction and spread will make human farm work a thing of the past.

Migrant workers are in shorter supply, making bots attractive

Per The Associated Press:

On a windy morning in California's Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, metal contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds.

The engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can "thin" a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.

Welcome to the future of agriculture, ladies and gentlemen.

The bot, as it is called, is just one of many new bots intended to mechanize "the last frontier of agricultural mechanization" - picking fruits and vegetables that are aimed at the fresh market, not processing into other foods or versions of the same food. So far, researchers say that part of the ag harvesting process has been resistant to mechanization because machines harm and bruise the fruits and veggies.

So, ag scientists have been working on developing machines that can do the job without inflicting damage on the produce "by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies," AP reported, adding that the bots under testing now won't be available yet for a few years, at a minimum.

Right now hordes of migrant workers tend to "America's Salad Bowl," located in sunny California, as they have for the past 100 years. But the coming machines will usher in the end of an era.

And many farmers are welcoming the technological advances. They see bots as easing the illegal immigration problem, increasing productivity at less cost (which could be passed onto consumers even as farm profits are bolstered), boost quality and provide a more consistent product.

"There aren't enough workers to take the available jobs, so the robots can come and alleviate some of that problem," Ron Yokota, a farm operations manager at Tanimura & Antle, a Salinas, California-based fresh produce company which was testing the Lettuce Bot, told the AP.

"We need to increase our efficiency, but nobody wants to work in the fields," Stavros G. Vougioukas, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at the University of California, Davis, told the newswire service.

Indeed, many migrants have "migrated" to easier, higher-paying manual labor jobs in the U.S. landscaping and housing markets, leaving a dearth of workers for the nation's produce fields. Ironically enough, crackdowns on illegal immigration have led to such labor shortages.

Clumsy and bulky, but coming nonetheless...

"Almost three-fourths of all U.S. hired farm workers are immigrants, most of them unauthorized. The U.S. food system - particularly fruit and vegetable production - depends on immigrants more than any other sector of the U.S. economy," says a report by the Bread for the World Institute.

Robots will cost plenty - for the largest farming operations, millions of dollars - but farm operators say the expense will be worth it.

Still, there is much research and development to be done. Right now, bots - machines in general - are clumsy and bulky. They are not always able to detect when fruit and vegetables are ready to be harvested or picked. They can't always detect between produce and leaves. And they don't have the dexterity of a seasoned farm worker.

Machinery and machine technology has made farming easier and more efficient for centuries. The development continues.





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