Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Solar-Powered Robot Farmers Are Almost Ready to Start Working the Land


So it looks like we're going to live to see the rise of the autonomous robot farmer after all. Or at least, the robot farmhand. There are plenty of promising agricultural automatons in the works, after all: We've got mechanized hydroponic factory farmers, self-propelling farmballs, and, now, solar-powered robots that collect data, pick weeds, and someday, harvest crops. 

That latest entrant is the Ladybird, the product of a $1 million research project helmed by the University of Sydney. Named as such because it sort of resembles a mechanical ladybug, it's covered by an arch of solar photovoltaics and is designed to both monitor and help cultivate vegetable crops. It's laser-guided and self-driving, and for now, it's primary mission is gathering data about the farm it tirelessly drives across.

"Ladybird focuses on broad acre agriculture and is solar-electric powered. It has an array of sensors for detecting vegetable growth and pest species, either plant or animal," Professor Salah Sukkarieh, one of the bots' chief developers, said in a statement. "She also has a robotic arm for the purposes of removing weeds as well as the potential for autonomous harvesting." 

Sukkarieh was awarded the 'Researcher of the Year' accolade by the Australian Vegetable Industry, which is apparently more excited at the prospect of getting some automated help than it is afraid the bot will take its jobs. In the dystopian-looking days ahead, when climate change has raised temperatures and brought less rainfall to arid-leaning regions, farmers will need all the help they can get to squeeze as much produce as possible out of increasingly less productive land.

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