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Robots Spread Seeds of Change in Fruit Orchards

Mechanization has made the modern farmer's life a lot easier. That's especially true for those who grow crops like wheat, soy or corn on big, broad fields. But the story is quite different for growers who raise fruit, nuts, vegetables or nursery plants.

These so-called specialty crops - a $45-billion-a-year business in the United States - require intensive hand labor. Faced with rising labor costs, a shortage of workers and increasing demand for safe and affordable products, specialty growers are desperate for ways to boost food quality without boosting its price.

One answer, says Craig Senovhich, may be robotic technology. Senovich, an engineer by day, opened Half Crown Hill Orchard four years ago in an overgrown field on land that his great-grandfather used to farm vegetables.

"There were a lot of crab apple trees and brush, and it took us several months just of digging out trees and clearing the land and preparing the soil," he says.

Senovich fenced in a 1.2-hectare plot, planted 1,300 trees and installed a drip irrigation system. Field sensors and a weather station are linked to his personal computer and track data related to the crop's well-being.

Half of Crown Hill Orchard is also a robotic technology test site for a United States Department of Agriculture project looking at ways of mechanizing the production of specialty crops like apples.

"It would be nice to be able to have some automated stuff just to mow the lawn," he says, reflecting on a chore that takes him several hours.

Sanjiv Singh, a Carnegie Mellon University robotics professor and principal investigator on the USDA project, says that task would be easy. He's at the orchard testing a battery-powered electric utility vehicle that drives itself. A laptop computer is the only passanger. Two laser scanners mounted on the front bumper, each taking 13,000 measurements per second, help plot its course.

"It sends the command to a controller on the vehicle, and that adjusts the steering and speed," says Singh.

On this day, the robotics team explores how the unmanned vehicle gets around.

"This technology coupled with sensors already available might give farmers a lot more information," says Singh, who envisions its application would allow growers to monitor more frequently.

Another USDA applied robotics project takes Cris Dima to Florida. The southeastern U.S. state is second only to Brazil in citrus production worldwide. Dima is a scientist at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon, and he has just spent several weeks in one of the state's largest orange groves testing a network of autonomous, or driverless, tractors. He says the farm could be monitored virtually from an office or from somewhere in the field.

"Four or more autonomous tractors could run simultaneously and perform operations such as spraying or mowing."

Robots could also be engineered to administer precise amounts of water or chemicals to specific trees. Dima says the goal is not to develop an entirely autonomous operation, but rather to integrate technology the farmer needs at an affordable price.

"Beyond proving that this is possible, there is work to be done in reducing the cost of the technology, making it robust and transferring it to somebody who can commercialize it."

Back at Half Crown Hill Orchard, Sanjiv Singh says it's going to take growers like Craig Senovich, engaged in the process, to move this technology into the marketplace.

"We've been working on this robotics [automation] technology for 25 years, and from a technology perspective, some of the things are well in hand."

The challenge, he adds, is to develop technology that can help generate enough money for growers.

Senovich nods in agreement as he watches the electric vehicle drive itself safely down rows of budding trees in his orchard. He's hoping these test runs will soon advance to the next step and start providing fruit and vegetable growers with some automated and money-saving solutions.