After reading this article it’s pretty hard to disagree that robots will drastically affect the way crops are grown and picked. Crop picking is incredibly labour-intensive and the industry is notorious for low pay and abusive practices, so on one hand this sounds like good news. But for the estimated 1M+ migrant workers originating from south of the U.S. border, agriculture provides much-needed employment and opportunity for a better life.
Slaughter showed me a prototype of a robotic weeding machine in the engineering department’s lab. His students built it and trained it to weed a field of tomato plants, each of which has its own G.P.S. coördinates. Because the robot knows exactly where the tomato plants are and has the machine vision and intelligence to know the difference between a tomato plant and a weed, it can navigate around the tomatoes and kill the weeds either with a miniature hoe or with a micro-jet of herbicide, which Slaughter described as “an inkjet printer for agriculture.” The farmer saves the cost of weeding the field by hand, and spares it a coating of herbicide that many of the tomato plants might not need. It was the nearest thing I saw in what venture capitalists call “digital agriculture” to a Roomba, the indoor robotic vacuum cleaner—a Farmba, maybe?
Summarizing the potential, Slaughter said, “For the first time, farmers can know what’s going on in their fields on the level of the individual plant. The idea is that you can run a farm with the same intimate care you would use on a back-yard garden, where you know each plant individually.” Farmers could irrigate and fertilize only those plants that needed it, and not waste resources on the current one-size-fits-all approach. Agriculture accounts for seventy per cent of fresh-water consumption worldwide, and, in the U.S. alone, farms use more than a billion pounds of pesticide each year; strawberry farms are especially heavy users. “Precision agriculture,” the name given to this slowly unfolding revolution, could dramatically reduce such wasteful and chemical-dependent practices.