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Earth’s oceans are having a rough go of it these days. On top of being the repository for millions of tons of plastic waste, global warming is affecting the oceans and upsetting marine ecosystems in potentially irreversible ways.
Coral bleaching, for example, occurs when warming water temperatures or other stress factors cause coral to cast off the algae that live on them. The coral goes from lush and colorful to white and bare, and sometimes dies off altogether. This has a ripple effect on the surrounding ecosystem.
Warmer water temperatures have also prompted many species of fish to move closer to the north or south poles, disrupting fisheries and altering undersea environments.
To keep these issues in check or, better yet, try to address and improve them, it’s crucial for scientists to monitor what’s going on in the water. A paper released last week by a team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a new tool for studying marine life: a biomimetic soft robotic fish, dubbed SoFi, that can swim with, observe, and interact with real fish.
SoFi isn’t the first robotic fish to hit the water, but it is the most advanced robot of its kind. Here’s what sets it apart.
It swims in three dimensions
Up until now, most robotic fish could only swim forward at a given water depth, advancing at a steady speed. SoFi blows older models out of the water. It’s equipped with side fins called dive planes, which move to adjust its angle and allow it to turn, dive downward, or head closer to the surface. Its density and thus its buoyancy can also be adjusted by compressing or decompressing air in an inner compartment.
“To our knowledge, this is the first robotic fish that can swim untethered in three dimensions for extended periods of time,” said CSAIL PhD candidate Robert Katzschmann, lead author of the study. “We are excited about the possibility of being able to use a system like this to get closer to marine life than humans can get on their own.”
The team took SoFi to the Rainbow Reef in Fiji to test out its swimming skills, and the robo fish didn’t disappoint—it was able to swim at depths of over 50 feet for 40 continuous minutes. What keeps it swimming? A lithium polymer battery just like the one that powers our smartphones.
It’s remote-controlled… by Super Nintendo
SoFi has sensors to help it see what’s around it, but it doesn’t have a mind of its own yet. Rather, it’s controlled by a nearby scuba-diving human, who can send it commands related to speed, diving, and turning. The best part? The commands come from an actual repurposed (and waterproofed) Super Nintendo controller. What’s not to love?
Image Credit: MIT CSAIL
Previous robotic fish built by this team had to be tethered to a boat, so the fact that SoFi can swim independently is a pretty big deal. Communication between the fish and the diver was most successful when the two were less than 10 meters apart.
It looks real, sort of
SoFi’s side fins are a bit stiff, and its camera may not pass for natural—but otherwise, it looks a lot like a real fish. This is mostly thanks to the way its tail moves; a motor pumps water between two chambers in the tail, and as one chamber fills, the tail bends towards that side, then towards the other side as water is pumped into the other chamber. The result is a motion that closely mimics the way fish swim. Not only that, the hydraulic system can change the water flow to get different tail movements that let SoFi swim at varying speeds; its average speed is around half a body length (21.7 centimeters) per second.
Besides looking neat, it’s important SoFi look lifelike so it can blend in with marine life and not scare real fish away, so it can get close to them and observe them.
“A robot like this can help explore the reef more closely than current robots, both because it can get closer more safely for the reef and because it can be better accepted by the marine species.” said Cecilia Laschi, a biorobotics professor at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy.
Just keep swimming
It sounds like this fish is nothing short of a regular Nemo. But its creators aren’t quite finished yet.
They’d like SoFi to be able to swim faster, so they’ll work on improving the robo fish’s pump system and streamlining its body and tail design. They also plan to tweak SoFi’s camera to help it follow real fish.
“We view SoFi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,” said CSAIL director Daniela Rus. “It has the potential to be a new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of marine life.”
The CSAIL team plans to make a whole school of SoFis to help biologists learn more about how marine life is reacting to environmental changes.
Image Credit: MIT CSAIL Continue reading
Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
Image Credit: Valentin Valkov / Shutterstock.com Continue reading