Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a new robot that may one day in the very near future plant, tend, and harvest your garden for you. (In fact, it may be able to do everything except maybe buy the seeds.)
The robot gardener evolved from an MIT project to teach students about robotics.
Based on the circular Roomba robotic floor cleaners, the small robot is 12 inches in diameter and only works with tomatoes. On top of the Roomba sits the robotic arm and an on-board Dell laptop. A robotic arm, equipped with a camera and flat gripper, extends the length of an additional 31 inches. Nikolaus Correll, a professor at MIT who, along with his under-graduate students, is developing the robotic gardener, states:
“Right now we are just using cherry tomatoes, but in the future I could see us doing all kinds of fruits and vegetables. The robotic gardener combines a lot of autonomous robotic movements: force control, vision and movement. I always thought it would be a good scholarly project to teach.”
It is not as easy as one might think to program a robot to select a tomato, because judgment is involved. Deciding just what shade of red means the tomato is ripe, applying the right amount of pressure to grab the fruit without damaging it, and then twisting the fruit free are all skills that must be taught.
The autonomous greenhouse keepers known as robot gardeners help students learn the basics of software and hardware engineering, but also the business of agriculture, which is important and ever-booming. In the future MIT’s robotic gardening team hopes to experiment with fruits that would present other challenges, like strawberries on the ground or miniature oranges, which wouldn’t change positions as the plant grows.
A professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Sanjiv Singh, has been developing robots for use in large-scale agricultural projects. He firmly believes that robots can perform many of the boring and backbreaking gardening tasks such as weeding and harvesting, faster and more efficiently.
In his own words:
“We won’t go from humans to robots in one pass. It will take small improvements to the entire growing process. But I’m very excited about the prospect of machines in agriculture. For many reasons it’s the right thing to do, and it’s a fantastic educational tool as well. The long-term goal is that someone could have a little 10 meter by 10 meter (33 feet X 33 feet) greenhouse that would just spit out fruits and vegetables. All you would have to do is add water and nutrients, and the robot would do the rest.”
At the moment, robot gardeners cost approximately $2,500 each and they all need some improvement. Still, it seems that in the next few years these robot gardeners may become not only a reality but also a common sight.
In the meantime, keep pulling up those weeds and breaking your back and awaiting the day when technology will relieve us all from the “joys of gardening.”