My Favorite Organic Farmer Is a Robot

Farmbot's here to work it all out. (Jamais Cascio /Creative Commons Licence)

What comes to mind when you think of robot farming? I'm guessing you envision an even more automated version of our current industrialized farming process, full of hover tractors, harvester behemoths and specially designed predabots that gobble down every pest organism. But does the future of robotic farming have to be so bleak and Matrixy?

This vision of our farming future played a central role in the old Epcot "Horizons" ride (see the video in this post). But just as the Disney attraction was swallowed up by a Florida sinkhole, so too are modern sensibilities tearing down the idea of the robot super farm.

With increased focus on smaller farms, slow food and organic cultivation methods, it was only a matter of time till the robots shook hands with hippies and got serious about growing some arugula.

Enter the GrowBot: A partnership between the Georgia Institute of Technology and Atlanta's independent food community, rogueApron, GrowBot explores the robotic possibilities for local organic farming. According to founder Lady Rogue, there's a misconception that organic farming is inherently anti-technology. You know what she means: bike-riding, sun tea-drinking treehuggers who prefer actual dirt to an episode of "Dirty Jobs." She lays it all out for us in the following quote:

"We'd like to strengthen the viability of organic farming by helping to create new tools and technology. The future of industrial food production is clear: genetically identical plants will be harvested by robots. This future is about 15 years away, give or take a recession or environmental collapse. Our food is already processed by plants, packaged by robots, shipped with sophisticated RFID embedded pallets to centralized distribution points that are increasingly controlled by intelligent algorithms. That is the clear-cut future progression of industrial food production. Our job is to help organic farmers to imagine tools that will help them create a viable production model as an alternative to this future."

You can read her entire interview with greenUPGRADER's Becky Striepe right here.

After all, you can incorporate technology without going full-blown industrial. Obviously that's the case with hoes and rakes, and you wouldn't criticize an organic farm for using solar technology, would you? The GrowBot Project is all about inviting robots to the part as well. One more quote:

"I haven't met a farmer yet who isn't interested in a way to preserve their way of life. I haven't met a farmer who isn't hoping that young people take up the siren call and become food producers themselves. So, no, I don't think that farming is anti-technology at all. It's just tainted with a wee bit of mistrust because the technology in recent years has tended to benefit industrial food production, and not organic."

To pull this off, the GrowBot Project aims to get robotics specialists and local, organic farmers in the same room, but it also means creating imagined visions of a future that encourage the possibilities. Epcot's "Horizons" got people excited about robotic industrialized farming. Any number of giant robot cartoons got Japanese scientists excited about populating the world with droids. This is more of the same: Imagine a better future based on obtainable technology and, in doing so, plant the seeds for a better tomorrow.

Sort of like Stephen King's inclusion of Andy the Messenger Robot in "The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the Calla," who I seem to recall helped out with the farming... and turned out to be a traitor serving the Crimson King. Oh snap. Bad example.

A good, real-world example would be India's need for coconut-picking robots. The demand for coconuts continues to rise, while the number of big-handed folks willing to earn a living climbing the trees dwindles. The younger generations just aren't interested in that line of work, but they'd probably be cool piloting a remote control climbing robot with saws for hands. Enter the Hanumanoid Coconut Harvester, a project under way from developers TK Velayudhan. According to India's Economic Times, the bot could prove the most mass-produced in any sector. For now, the funding is still coming together.

The GrowBot Symposium should be starting up in the next few months. First, they'll brainstorm with farmers, then they'll bring in the engineers for further discussion. You can read all about it at the official Web site.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.