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#435119 Are These Robots Better Than You at ...

Robot technology is evolving at breakneck speed. SoftBank’s Pepper is found in companies across the globe and is rapidly improving its conversation skills. Telepresence robots open up new opportunities for remote working, while Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot could soon (literally) take a load off human colleagues in warehouses.

But warehouses and offices aren’t the only places where robots are lining up next to humans.

Toyota’s Cue 3 robot recently showed off its basketball skills, putting up better numbers than the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter, the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry.

Cue 3 is still some way from being ready to take on Curry, or even amateur basketball players, in a real game. However, it is the latest member of a growing cast of robots challenging human dominance in sports.

As these robots continue to develop, they not only exemplify the speed of exponential technology development, but also how those technologies are improving human capabilities.

Meet the Contestants
The list of robots in sports is surprisingly long and diverse. There are robot skiers, tumblers, soccer players, sumos, and even robot game jockeys. Introductions to a few of them are in order.

Robot: Forpheus
Sport: Table tennis
Intro: Looks like something out of War of the Worlds equipped with a ping pong bat instead of a death ray.
Ability level: Capable of counteracting spin shots and good enough to beat many beginners.

Robot: Sumo bot
Sport: Sumo wrestling
Intro: Hyper-fast, hyper-aggressive. Think robot equivalent to an angry wasp on six cans of Red Bull crossed with a very small tank.
Ability level: Flies around the ring way faster than any human sumo. Tend to drive straight out of the ring at times.

Robot: Cue 3
Sport: Basketball
Intro: Stands at an imposing 6 foot and 10 inches, so pretty much built for the NBA. Looks a bit like something that belongs in a video game.
Ability level: A 62.5 percent three-pointer percentage, which is better than Steph Curry’s; is less mobile than Charles Barkley – in his current form.

Robot: Robo Cup Robots
Intro: The future of soccer. If everything goes to plan, a team of robots will take on the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of 2050 and beat them in a full 11 vs. 11 game.
Ability level: Currently plays soccer more like the six-year-olds I used to coach than Lionel Messi.

The Limiting Factor
The skill level of all the robots above is impressive, and they are doing things that no human contestant can. The sumo bots’ inhuman speed is self-evident. Forpheus’ ability to track the ball with two cameras while simultaneously tracking its opponent with two other cameras requires a look at the spec sheet, but is similarly beyond human capability. While Cue 3 can’t move, it makes shots from the mid-court logo look easy.

Robots are performing at a level that was confined to the realm of science fiction at the start of the millennium. The speed of development indicates that in the near future, my national team soccer coach would likely call up a robot instead of me (he must have lost my number since he hasn’t done so yet. It’s the only logical explanation), and he’d be right to do so.

It is also worth considering that many current sports robots have a humanoid form, which limits their ability. If engineers were to optimize robot design to outperform humans in specific categories, many world champions would likely already be metallic.

Swimming is perhaps one of the most obvious. Even Michael Phelps would struggle to keep up with a torpedo-shaped robot, and if you beefed up a sumo robot to human size, human sumos might impress you by running away from them with a 100-meter speed close to Usain Bolt’s.

In other areas, the playing field for humans and robots is rapidly leveling. One likely candidate for the first head-to-head competitions is racing, where self-driving cars from the Roborace League could perhaps soon be ready to race the likes of Lewis Hamilton.

Tech Pushing Humans
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons why it may still take some time for robots to surpass us is that they, along with other exponential technologies, are already making us better at sports.

In Japan, elite volleyball players use a robot to practice their attacks. Some American football players also practice against robot opponents and hone their skills using VR.

On the sidelines, AI is being used to analyze and improve athletes’ performance, and we may soon see the first AI coaches, not to mention referees.

We may even compete in games dreamt up by our electronic cousins. SpeedGate, a new game created by an AI by studying 400 different sports, is a prime example of that quickly becoming a possibility.

However, we will likely still need to make the final call on what constitutes a good game. The AI that created SpeedGate reportedly also suggested less suitable pastimes, like underwater parkour and a game that featured exploding frisbees. Both of these could be fun…but only if you’re as sturdy as a robot.

Image Credit: RoboCup Standard Platform League 2018, ©The Robocup Federation. Published with permission of reproduction granted by the RoboCup Federation. Continue reading

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#433911 Thanksgiving Food for Thought: The Tech ...

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, it’s a great time to reflect on the future of food. Over the last few years, we have seen a dramatic rise in exponential technologies transforming the food industry from seed to plate. Food is important in many ways—too little or too much of it can kill us, and it is often at the heart of family, culture, our daily routines, and our biggest celebrations. The agriculture and food industries are also two of the world’s biggest employers. Let’s take a look to see what is in store for the future.

Robotic Farms
Over the last few years, we have seen a number of new companies emerge in the robotic farming industry. This includes new types of farming equipment used in arable fields, as well as indoor robotic vertical farms. In November 2017, Hands Free Hectare became the first in the world to remotely grow an arable crop. They used autonomous tractors to sow and spray crops, small rovers to take soil samples, drones to monitor crop growth, and an unmanned combine harvester to collect the crops. Since then, they’ve also grown and harvested a field of winter wheat, and have been adding additional technologies and capabilities to their arsenal of robotic farming equipment.

Indoor vertical farming is also rapidly expanding. As Engadget reported in October 2018, a number of startups are now growing crops like leafy greens, tomatoes, flowers, and herbs. These farms can grow food in urban areas, reducing transport, water, and fertilizer costs, and often don’t need pesticides since they are indoors. IronOx, which is using robots to grow plants with navigation technology used by self-driving cars, can grow 30 times more food per acre of land using 90 percent less water than traditional farmers. Vertical farming company Plenty was recently funded by Softbank’s Vision Fund, Jeff Bezos, and others to build 300 vertical farms in China.

These startups are not only succeeding in wealthy countries. Hello Tractor, an “uberized” tractor, has worked with 250,000 smallholder farms in Africa, creating both food security and tech-infused agriculture jobs. The World Food Progam’s Innovation Accelerator (an impact partner of Singularity University) works with hundreds of startups aimed at creating zero hunger. One project is focused on supporting refugees in developing “food computers” in refugee camps—computerized devices that grow food while also adjusting to the conditions around them. As exponential trends drive down the costs of robotics, sensors, software, and energy, we should see robotic farming scaling around the world and becoming the main way farming takes place.

Cultured Meat
Exponential technologies are not only revolutionizing how we grow vegetables and grains, but also how we generate protein and meat. The new cultured meat industry is rapidly expanding, led by startups such as Memphis Meats, Mosa Meats, JUST Meat, Inc. and Finless Foods, and backed by heavyweight investors including DFJ, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Cargill, and Tyson Foods.

Cultured meat is grown in a bioreactor using cells from an animal, a scaffold, and a culture. The process is humane and, potentially, scientists can make the meat healthier by adding vitamins, removing fat, or customizing it to an individual’s diet and health concerns. Another benefit is that cultured meats, if grown at scale, would dramatically reduce environmental destruction, pollution, and climate change caused by the livestock and fishing industries. Similar to vertical farms, cultured meat is produced using technology and can be grown anywhere, on-demand and in a decentralized way.

Similar to robotic farming equipment, bioreactors will also follow exponential trends, rapidly falling in cost. In fact, the first cultured meat hamburger (created by Singularity University faculty Member Mark Post of Mosa Meats in 2013) cost $350,000 dollars. In 2018, Fast Company reported the cost was now about $11 per burger, and the Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies predicted they will produce beef at about $2 per pound in 2020, which will be competitive with existing prices. For those who have turkey on their mind, one can read about New Harvest’s work (one of the leading think tanks and research centers for the cultured meat and cellular agriculture industry) in funding efforts to generate a nugget of cultured turkey meat.

One outstanding question is whether cultured meat is safe to eat and how it will interact with the overall food supply chain. In the US, regulators like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working out their roles in this process, with the FDA overseeing the cellular process and the FDA overseeing production and labeling.

Food Processing
Tech companies are also making great headway in streamlining food processing. Norwegian company Tomra Foods was an early leader in using imaging recognition, sensors, artificial intelligence, and analytics to more efficiently sort food based on shape, composition of fat, protein, and moisture, and other food safety and quality indicators. Their technologies have improved food yield by 5-10 percent, which is significant given they own 25 percent of their market.

These advances are also not limited to large food companies. In 2016 Google reported how a small family farm in Japan built a world-class cucumber sorting device using their open-source machine learning tool TensorFlow. SU startup Impact Vision uses hyper-spectral imaging to analyze food quality, which increases revenues and reduces food waste and product recalls from contamination.

These examples point to a question many have on their mind: will we live in a future where a few large companies use advanced technologies to grow the majority of food on the planet, or will the falling costs of these technologies allow family farms, startups, and smaller players to take part in creating a decentralized system? Currently, the future could flow either way, but it is important for smaller companies to take advantage of the most cutting-edge technology in order to stay competitive.

Food Purchasing and Delivery
In the last year, we have also seen a number of new developments in technology improving access to food. Amazon Go is opening grocery stores in Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago where customers use an app that allows them to pick up their products and pay without going through cashier lines. Sam’s Club is not far behind, with an app that also allows a customer to purchase goods in-store.

The market for food delivery is also growing. In 2017, Morgan Stanley estimated that the online food delivery market from restaurants could grow to $32 billion by 2021, from $12 billion in 2017. Companies like Zume are pioneering robot-powered pizza making and delivery. In addition to using robotics to create affordable high-end gourmet pizzas in their shop, they also have a pizza delivery truck that can assemble and cook pizzas while driving. Their system combines predictive analytics using past customer data to prepare pizzas for certain neighborhoods before the orders even come in. In early November 2018, the Wall Street Journal estimated that Zume is valued at up to $2.25 billion.

Looking Ahead
While each of these developments is promising on its own, it’s also important to note that since all these technologies are in some way digitized and connected to the internet, the various food tech players can collaborate. In theory, self-driving delivery restaurants could share data on what they are selling to their automated farm equipment, facilitating coordination of future crops. There is a tremendous opportunity to improve efficiency, lower costs, and create an abundance of healthy, sustainable food for all.

On the other hand, these technologies are also deeply disruptive. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, in 2010 about one billion people, or a third of the world’s workforce, worked in the farming and agricultural industries. We need to ensure these farmers are linked to new job opportunities, as well as facilitate collaboration between existing farming companies and technologists so that the industries can continue to grow and lead rather than be displaced.

Just as importantly, each of us might think about how these changes in the food industry might impact our own ways of life and culture. Thanksgiving celebrates community and sharing of food during a time of scarcity. Technology will help create an abundance of food and less need for communities to depend on one another. What are the ways that you will create community, sharing, and culture in this new world?

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#432646 How Fukushima Changed Japanese Robotics ...

In March 2011, Japan was hit by a catastrophic earthquake that triggered a terrible tsunami. Thousands were killed and billions of dollars of damage was done in one of the worst disasters of modern times. For a few perilous weeks, though, the eyes of the world were focused on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Its safety systems were unable to cope with the tsunami damage, and there were widespread fears of another catastrophic meltdown that could spread radiation over several countries, like the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s. A heroic effort that included dumping seawater into the reactor core prevented an even bigger catastrophe. As it is, a hundred thousand people are still evacuated from the area, and it will likely take many years and hundreds of billions of dollars before the region is safe.

Because radiation is so dangerous to humans, the natural solution to the Fukushima disaster was to send in robots to monitor levels of radiation and attempt to begin the clean-up process. The techno-optimists in Japan had discovered a challenge, deep in the heart of that reactor core, that even their optimism could not solve. The radiation fried the circuits of the robots that were sent in, even those specifically designed and built to deal with the Fukushima catastrophe. The power plant slowly became a vast robot graveyard. While some robots initially saw success in measuring radiation levels around the plant—and, recently, a robot was able to identify the melted uranium fuel at the heart of the disaster—hopes of them playing a substantial role in the clean-up are starting to diminish.

In Tokyo’s neon Shibuya district, it can sometimes seem like it’s brighter at night than it is during the daytime. In karaoke booths on the twelfth floor—because everything is on the twelfth floor—overlooking the brightly-lit streets, businessmen unwind by blasting out pop hits. It can feel like the most artificial place on Earth; your senses are dazzled by the futuristic techno-optimism. Stock footage of the area has become symbolic of futurism and modernity.

Japan has had a reputation for being a nation of futurists for a long time. We’ve already described how tech giant Softbank, headed by visionary founder Masayoshi Son, is investing billions in a technological future, including plans for the world’s largest solar farm.

When Google sold pioneering robotics company Boston Dynamics in 2017, Softbank added it to their portfolio, alongside the famous Nao and Pepper robots. Some may think that Son is taking a gamble in pursuing a robotics project even Google couldn’t succeed in, but this is a man who lost nearly everything in the dot-com crash of 2000. The fact that even this reversal didn’t dent his optimism and faith in technology is telling. But how long can it last?

The failure of Japan’s robots to deal with the immense challenge of Fukushima has sparked something of a crisis of conscience within the industry. Disaster response is an obvious stepping-stone technology for robots. Initially, producing a humanoid robot will be very costly, and the robot will be less capable than a human; building a robot to wait tables might not be particularly economical yet. Building a robot to do jobs that are too dangerous for humans is far more viable. Yet, at Fukushima, in one of the most advanced nations in the world, many of the robots weren’t up to the task.

Nowhere was this crisis more felt than Honda; the company had developed ASIMO, which stunned the world in 2000 and continues to fascinate as an iconic humanoid robot. Despite all this technological advancement, however, Honda knew that ASIMO was still too unreliable for the real world.

It was Fukushima that triggered a sea-change in Honda’s approach to robotics. Two years after the disaster, there were rumblings that Honda was developing a disaster robot, and in October 2017, the prototype was revealed to the public for the first time. It’s not yet ready for deployment in disaster zones, however. Interestingly, the creators chose not to give it dexterous hands but instead to assume that remotely-operated tools fitted to the robot would be a better solution for the range of circumstances it might encounter.

This shift in focus for humanoid robots away from entertainment and amusement like ASIMO, and towards being practically useful, has been mirrored across the world.

In 2015, also inspired by the Fukushima disaster and the lack of disaster-ready robots, the DARPA Robotics Challenge tested humanoid robots with a range of tasks that might be needed in emergency response, such as driving cars, opening doors, and climbing stairs. The Terminator-like ATLAS robot from Boston Dynamics, alongside Korean robot HUBO, took many of the plaudits, and CHIMP also put in an impressive display by being able to right itself after falling.

Yet the DARPA Robotics Challenge showed us just how far the robots are from truly being as useful as we’d like, or maybe even as we would imagine. Many robots took hours to complete the tasks, which were highly idealized to suit them. Climbing stairs proved a particular challenge. Those who watched were more likely to see a robot that had fallen over, struggling to get up, rather than heroic superbots striding in to save the day. The “striding” proved a particular problem, with the fastest robot HUBO managing this by resorting to wheels in its knees when the legs weren’t necessary.

Fukushima may have brought a sea-change over futuristic Japan, but before robots will really begin to enter our everyday lives, they will need to prove their worth. In the interim, aerial drone robots designed to examine infrastructure damage after disasters may well see earlier deployment and more success.

It’s a considerable challenge.

Building a humanoid robot is expensive; if these multi-million-dollar machines can’t help in a crisis, people may begin to question the worth of investing in them in the first place (unless your aim is just to make viral videos). This could lead to a further crisis of confidence among the Japanese, who are starting to rely on humanoid robotics as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.

But if they continue to fail when put to the test, that will raise serious concerns. In Tokyo’s Akihabara district, you can see all kinds of flash robotic toys for sale in the neon-lit superstores, and dancing, acting robots like Robothespian can entertain crowds all over the world. But if we want these machines to be anything more than toys—partners, helpers, even saviors—more work needs to be done.

At the same time, those who participated in the DARPA Robotics Challenge in 2015 won’t be too concerned if people were underwhelmed by the performance of their disaster relief robots. Back in 2004, nearly every participant in the DARPA Grand Challenge crashed, caught fire, or failed on the starting line. To an outside observer, the whole thing would have seemed like an unmitigated disaster, and a pointless investment. What was the task in 2004? Developing a self-driving car. A lot can change in a decade.

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#432456 This Planned Solar Farm in Saudi Arabia ...

Right now it only exists on paper, in the form of a memorandum of understanding. But if constructed, the newly-announced solar photovoltaic project in Saudi Arabia would break an astonishing array of records. It’s larger than any solar project currently planned by a factor of 100. When completed, nominally in 2030, it would have a capacity of an astonishing 200 gigawatts (GW). The project is backed by Softbank Group and Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and was announced in New York on March 27.

The Tengger Desert Solar Park in China, affectionately known as the “Great Wall of Solar,” is the world’s largest operating solar farm, with a capacity of 1.5 GW. Larger farms are under construction, including the Westlands Solar Park, which plans to finish with 2.7 GW of capacity. But even those that are only in the planning phases are dwarfed by the Saudi project; two early-stage solar parks will have capacity of 7.2 GW, and the plan involves them generating electricity as early as next year.

It makes more sense to compare to slightly larger projects, like nations, or even planets. Saudi Arabia’s current electricity generation capacity is 77 GW. This project would almost triple it. The current total solar photovoltaic generation capacity installed worldwide is 303 GW. In other words, this single solar farm would account for a similar installed capacity as the entire world’s capacity in 2015, and over a thousand times more than we had in 2000.

That’s exponential growth for you, folks.

Of course, practically doubling the world’s solar capacity doesn’t come cheap; the nominal estimate for the budget is around $200 billion (compared to $20 billion for around half a gigawatt of fusion, though, it may not seem so bad.) But the project would help solve a number of pressing problems for Saudi Arabia.

For a start, solar power works well in the desert. The irradiance is high, you have plenty of empty space, and peak demand is driven by air conditioning in the cities and so corresponds with peak supply. Even if oil companies might seem blasé about the global supply of oil running out, individual countries are aware that their own reserves won’t last forever, and they don’t want to miss the energy transition. The country’s Vision 2030 project aims to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy by that year. If they can construct solar farms on this scale, alongside the $80 billion the government plans to spend on a fleet of nuclear reactors, it seems logical to export that power to other countries in the region, especially given the amount of energy storage that would be required otherwise.

We’ve already discussed a large-scale project to build solar panels in the desert then export the electricity: the DESERTEC initiative in the Sahara. Although DESERTEC planned a range of different demonstration plants on scales of around 500 MW, its ultimate ambition was to “provide 20 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050.” It seems that this project is similar in scale to what they were planning. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is going to be incredibly difficult. Only large-scale nuclear, wind, or solar can really supply the world’s energy needs if consumption is anything like what it is today; in all likelihood, we’ll need a combination of all three.

To make a sizeable contribution to that effort, the renewable projects have to be truly epic in scale. The planned 2 GW solar park at Bulli Creek in Australia would cover 5 square kilometers, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that, across many farms, this project could cover around 500 square kilometers—around the size of Chicago.

It will come as no surprise that Softbank is involved in this project. The founder, Masayoshi Son, is well-known for large-scale “visionary” investments. This is suggested by the name of his $100 billion VC fund, the Softbank Vision Fund, and the focus of its investments. It has invested millions of dollars in tech companies like Uber, IoT, NVIDIA and ARM, and startups across fields like VR, agritech, and AI.

Of course, Softbank is also the company that bought infamous robot-makers Boston Dynamics from Google when their not-at-all-sinister “Project Replicant” was sidelined. Softbank is famous in Japan in part due to their mascot, Pepper, which is probably the most widespread humanoid robot on the planet. Suffice it to say that Softbank is keen to be a part of any technological development, and they’re not afraid of projects that are truly vast in scope.

Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 led Japan to turn away from nuclear power, Son has also been focused on green electricity, floating the idea of an Asia Super Grid. Similar to DESERTEC, it aims to get around the main issues with renewable energy (the land use and the intermittency of supply) with a vast super-grid that would connect Mongolia, India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea with high-voltage DC power cables. “Since this is such a grandiose project, many people told me it is crazy,” Son said. “They said it is impossible both economically and politically.” The first stage of the project, a demonstration wind farm of 50 megawatts in Mongolia, began operating in October of last year.

Given that Saudi Arabia put up $45 billion of the Vision Fund, it’s also not surprising to see the location of the project; Softbank reportedly had plans to invest $25 billion of the Vision Fund in Saudi Arabia, and $1 billion will be spent on the first solar farms there. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, 32, who recently consolidated power, is looking to be seen on the global stage as a modernizer. He was effusive about the project. “It’s a huge step in human history,” he said. “It’s bold, risky, and we hope we succeed doing that.”

It is the risk that will keep renewable energy enthusiasts concerned.

Every visionary plan contains the potential for immense disappointment. As yet, the Asian Super Grid and the Saudi power plan are more or less at the conceptual stage. The fact that a memorandum of understanding exists between the Saudi government and Softbank is no guarantee that it will ever be built. Some analysts in the industry are a little skeptical.

“It’s an unprecedented construction effort; it’s an unprecedented financing effort,” said Benjamin Attia, a global solar analyst for Green Tech Media Research. “But there are so many questions, so few details, and a lot of headwinds, like grid instability, the availability of commercial debt, construction, and logistics challenges.”

We have already seen with the DESERTEC initiative that these vast-scale renewable energy projects can fail, despite immense enthusiasm. They are not easy to accomplish. But in a world without fossil fuels, they will be required. This project could be a flagship example for how to run a country on renewable energy—or another example of grand designs and good intentions. We’ll have to wait to find out which.

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#431377 The Farms of the Future Will Be ...

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.
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