Robots on the Farm
Modern commercial farms are already full of tractors with automated steering and machines that can milk cows and till soil. But zeroing in on individual fruits or vegetables is a much more challenging task.
Paramount Pictures Corporation
June 29, 2011 --
In the movie "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," Autobots, transforming robots from the planet Cybertron, work alongside humans to battle the Decepticons, a rival group of robots bent on destroying the universe. The latest Transformers installment may just be a work of fiction, but would real-life robots on Earth be up to the task of saving the planet from the threat of an overwhelming destructive force? Of course not, but that doesn't mean they won't get there one day. Until then, we present the next best thing in this slideshow of incredible real-life robots.
Alex Kossett and Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, U
We begin the slideshow with an actual real-life transforming robot. Although it doesn't tranform into a sentient, humanoid machine, this robot can transform from what appears to be an elaborate motorized rolling pin to a helicopter when the terrain starts to get rough.
Take a look at this flying robot in action here. BLOG: Rolling Robot Transforms into a Helicopter
What's more terrifying than a hungry, fully grown cheetah chasing you down? How about if it were made of metal? Meet CHEETAH, a robot designed by Boston Dynamics for one purpose: to hunt you down like an animal. Once built, this robot will be fast, agile and strong enough to chase down, catch and subdue even the fastest human runners. This robot is one of a line of prototypes known as "terror bots." An appropriate name, especially if you see this guy biting at your heels as you run full speed. BLOG: TERROR BOTS BEING DESIGNED TO HUNT YOU DOWN
If this robot reminds you of Scorponok from the "Transformers" film series, you wouldn't be far off. Designed by researchers at the University of Bielefeld, this advanced walking robot is based on a rather simple creature: an insect. HECTOR, short for Hexapod Cognitive autonomously Operating Robot, has six legs and elastic joints that allow its motions to mimic muscle movement. This construction allows the robot to navigate over uneven terrain. At a little more than three feet long and weighing in at 26 pounds, this robot probably won't be involved in any world domination schemes anytime soon. BLOG: HECTOR THE WALKING ROBOT INSPIRED BY INSECTS
Snake Robot to the Rescue
Cheetahs and insects aren't the only animals inspiring robotics' engineers. Mechanical snakes are also being designed to mimic their mechanical counterparts. Unlike CHEETAH, which is made to hunt you down, this snake robot, created by researchers at Georgia Tech Univeristy, is actually designed to come to the rescue. Their unique body shape allows them to burrow through uneven soil. With this unique feature, emergency responders could deploy these robots after a particularly devastating natural disaster, such as an earthquake, when victims are buried and out of reach. BLOG: SNAKE-LIKE ROBOT SWIMS TO THE RESCUE
Robots may not yet be able to conquer the Earth, but what about the wide world of sports? They're already playing soccer and tossing baseballs. Now it looks like they're competing in marathons. (Well, robot marathons anyway.) Last February, five bipedal robots ran a non-stop 26.2-mile race on a 100-meter indoor track in Osaka, Japan. But don't expect these machines to compete with humans anytime soon. Robovie-PC, the winner of the race, finished in just under 55 hours. BIG PIC: TOY-SIZED HUMANOID WINS ROBOT MARATHAN
Ingmar Posner, Oxford Mobile Robotics Group
No this robot can't run or jump or slither or swim. So what can it do? This machine, known as Marge, has a very different ability entirely: It can read -- and it can learn. Marge may just look like a Tonka truck underneath a coffee pot, but this machine is actually smart enough to read The New York Times and BBC Online. It is even a skilled editor and can identify and correct misspellings. And because Marge's brains are built in its software, not its hardware, this same programming could make its way into other devices, such as cell phones. BLOG: ROBOT CAN READ, LEARN LIKE A HUMAN
Can anyone really tell the difference between right and wrong? Well, this robot can. This robot's ethical code is based on a software program modeled on an approach to ethics developed in 1930 by Scottish philosopher David Ross. As a result, this robot is designed to take the moral high ground -- and will tell on you if you're doing something wrong. Sure this robot doesn't have the firepower of an Ironhide or a Starscream, but a judgmental expression and a jittery nod of disapproval can be just as damaging. BLOG: ROBOT MAKES ETHICAL DECISIONS
Meet Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that could one day be your co-worker -- or even take your job. Yes, this robot has everything any employer looks for in a diligent worker: It's capable and tireless, and it doesn't ever need lunch or bathroom breaks. In fact, you'll never guess where this robot is currently employed: the International Space Station. Robonaut 2 is currently working along astronauts, helping with basic maintenance tasks, such as cleaning. DNEWS VIDEO: MEET 'ROBONAUT 2,' YOUR FUTURE CO-WORKER
Robonaut 2 isn't the only robot on the space station with a job. Dextre, the Canadian robot that lives outside the International Space Station, has been tasked with refueling satellites while in low-Earth orbit. The robot will also be capable of performing minor repairs. In other words, this robot is essentially a space mechanic. Although a gas-pumping robot may not seem like much, Dextre could pave the way for an entirely new industry for satellite servicing. NEWS: SPACE STATION ROBOT LANDS A JOB
- Autonomous agricultural robots that could identify, spray and pick individual fruits and vegetables may soon be a reality.
- New research focuses on the "brains" of the computers, teaching them to see and learn like human brains do.
- The work could help advance other fields, too, including robotic surgery and other medical applications.
Commercial farms of the future may be staffed by robots that will identify, spray and pick individual pieces of produce from plants, even when their targets are grapes, peppers and apples that are as green as the leaves that surround them.
As scientists in Israel and Europe get closer to this goal, experts say the work has a number of potential benefits. Autonomous agricultural robots could protect human workers from the harmful effects of handling chemicals by hand. And through a system of highly selective spraying, robots could reduce a farm's use of pesticides by up to 80 percent.
Robots could also offer a timely supply of labor in many places, where there simply aren't enough itinerant workers available at the right times in the harvesting cycle. Meanwhile, attempts to create robots that can see, grasp and learn could end up having widespread applications in medicine, video games and more.
And while scientists have been working to develop robots for agricultural labor for more than 20 years, a new project is taking a more cerebral approach. The goal is to teach computers to see like humans do and to get better at their jobs as they work and learn.
"The technology is ready, and now we can start seeing this penetrating into the market," said Yael Edan, an engineer and robotics researcher at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "I would say there will definitely be robots out there in five years -- maybe not be on every farm, and maybe not for every farmer. I think now the time is there."
Modern commercial farms are already full of tractors with automated steering and machines that can milk cows and till soil. But zeroing in on individual fruits or vegetables is a much more challenging task. That's because the outdoor environment is unpredictable and ever-changing.
Each piece of produce, for example, has a unique shape, size, color and orientation, which means that a computer can't be programmed to simply search for a specific image. Shadows and light conditions change throughout the day and night, as well, making an individual object look different under various conditions. And green fruits and vegetables can look much like the leafy bushes or vines they grow on.
Modern commercial farms are already full of tractors with automated steering and machines that can milk cows and till soil. But zeroing in on individual fruits or vegetables is a much more challenging task. Corbis
To boost a computer's ability to find order within the relative chaos of an agricultural environment, Edan's team, along with a European consortium of colleagues, is working on intelligent sensing systems. One strategy involves multi-spectral cameras that analyze wavelengths of light bouncing off of objects. The idea is to find a consistent pattern that would tell the robot when it is seeing, say, a pepper, no matter whether that pepper was right-side-up or upside-down.
Along with other sensors and programs, the researchers aim to create a robotic "brain" that could then learn from its mistakes and improve as it works.
"We will have an algorithm that will see simple shapes. And when food is partially covered by leaves, it will say: 'OK, let's not use the full-shape algorithm. But since we only see part of the food, let's try to complete the contour,'" Edan said. What separates her team's work from previous projects, she said, is that it incorporates both features of human vision and computer learning.
So far, computers can easily find between 80 and 85 percent of fruits on a plant, the group has found. But their benchmark is 90 percent, and many farmers say they wouldn't use a robot unless it hit an accuracy rate of 99 percent.
Once a robot identifies its targets, the engineers are also trying to design a grasping tool that will grab produce in the right place and pick it with the right amount of firmness. To that end, they are studying human movements and using another set of algorithms to try to imitate what comes so naturally to human hands.
As the project, which began last October, ramps up and begins to produce results, agricultural robots could eventually help farmers around the world, including in the United States, said Bernie Engel, an agricultural engineer at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
"In many cases, there are challenges finding labor to do some of the harvesting of strawberries and other fruits and vegetables," Engel said. "It's hard work. There's a timeliness factor, where you can't wait a week. You need lots of labor for fairly short periods of time, which creates real challenges for keeping people employed in a sustainable manner."
"If you think about the global population at this point and the need to feed a growing population," he added, "we have to get more efficient at the harvesting and production of these crops."