In Spain, the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) is working on a device it calls Rosphere. It looks like a hamster ball with rubber ridges. Inside are the mechanics that propel the robot: a motor, axle and pendulum that control movement in any direction.
The purpose of the device is to automate precision agriculture. Currently, most crops are treated with fertilizers and pesticides on a large scale. In other words, they're applied to the whole field at once. With Rosphere, UPM seeks to apply such treatments only to individual plants that need them.
Another project from Europe, known as cRops (Clever Robots for Crops) is another attempt at automating precision agriculture. These robots are designed to spray treatments to a specific plant. They will also have a mechanism to detect when fruit is ripe and pick it.
Japan's Institute of Agricultural Machinery’s Bio-oriented Technology Research Advancement Institution (IAM-BRAIN) has developed a prototype that uses multiple cameras to examine strawberries and picks them by snipping the stem if are 80 percent red. According to a representative from IAM-BRAIN, this robot can reduce harvest time by 40%.
Billerica, MA-based Harvest Automation developed the HV-100, to improve greenhouse and nursery operations. These facilities grow ornamental plants sold at home improvement stores like Lowe's or Home Depot. The process is labor intensive and requires relocating the plants frequently.
The HV-100 automates the process of relocating the plants. It has two wheels, optical sensors and a clamp that do most of the work. Since the plants are kept in containers, the robot can easily grasp the container and relocate it.
The potential benefits of the HV-100 are huge economically. In addition to its time and labor saving automation, it reduces the costs associated with on the job injuries and compliance with labor laws.
The HV-100 is already in production, but will these other solutions get to that point?
Rosphere was able to test soil conditions and did well in a safety test interacting with humans nearby, but does not appear to have been tested for any of the precision agriculture applications that its creators ultimately want. cRops won't be ready until at least 2017, and the Japanese strawberry-picking design likely won't get into production without government subsidies.
The fact that more research is being done in agriculture robotics is a sign that the concept should catch. For now, it appears that the more simple designs like the HV-100 are the only ones that will make it outside of the lab anytime soon.