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Robots move into agricultural sector

22 July 2013

Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Source: AP
Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Source: AP

US scientists have developed a machine that can ‘thin’ a field of lettuce in the same time it takes 20 people to do the job by hand.

The Lettuce Bot is part of a new generation of machines targeting agricultural mechanisation, which has so far been resisted due to the fact that fruits and vegetables are sensitive to bruising. 

Researchers are now designing robots for delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms. Networking and high precision GPS localisation technologies are also being used. 

Farmers say that robots could provide relief from recent labour shortages, lessen the unknowns of immigration reform, reduce costs, increase quality and yield a more consistent product. 

"There aren't enough workers to take the available jobs, so the robots can come and alleviate some of that problem,'' said Ron Yokota, a farming operations manager at Tanimura & Antle, a Salinas, California based fresh produce company that owns the field where the Lettuce Bot was being tested.

On the Salinas Valley farm, entrepreneurs with Mountain View based startup Blue River Technology are trying to show that the Lettuce Bot can not only replace two dozen workers, but also improve production.

"Using Lettuce Bot can produce more lettuce plants than doing it any other way,'' said Jorge Heraud, the company's co-founder and CEO.

After a lettuce field is planted, growers typically hire a crew of farmworkers who use hoes to remove excess plants to give space for others to grow into full lettuce heads. The Lettuce Bot uses video cameras and visual recognition software to identify which lettuce plants to eliminate with a squirt of concentrated fertilizer that kills the unwanted buds while enriching the soil.

Blue River, which has raised more than $3million in venture capital, also plans to develop machines to automate weeding - and eventually harvesting - using many of the same technologies.

Picture: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Source: AP


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