Killer Robots & Organic Farming
- Robots will replace some use of pesticides / herbicides.
- Robotic pest removal will become a large business in its own right.
- Robotic pest removal will be a sustainable alternative that will help organic farming scale up.
Humans have waged chemical warfare in the name of agriculture for the past five millennia. Archaeology suggests that Sulfur was used in ancient Sumer against human pests such as mites and bedbugs, whereas the Chinese used Arsenic compounds as pesticides as early as perhaps 3200 BC.
Humans got a leg-up in the 20th century thanks to refinements in organic chemistry and massive chemical production. This has brought us modern wonders such as DDT to kill insects among other things, as well as a host of weed-killing herbicides. Contemporary chemicals now include various highly-targeted chemical compounds, such as Roundup.
All chemical herbicides and pesticides are facing extinction through chemical resistance. As the pests evolve, chemical engineers struggle to keep up.
Fortunately, there has always been a manual alternative to chemicals: pull the weeds and squash the bugs! Much of agriculture throughout human history involved a large measure of this activity because true pesticides as we know them did not exist. It is a very labor intensive, detail oriented, time-consuming process. Can anyone say ROBOT?
With true AI and cloud computing applied to lower and lower cost robotics, we can expect to see robotic solutions to many traditionally chemically solved problems. Machine vision is increasingly ubiquitous, and can run on smart phones. Mobile power sources are becoming increasingly compact for mobile robotic platforms thanks to Lithium Polymer batteries. Finally, the range of pest killing instruments, from robotic manipulators, vacuum attachments, to multi-WATT blue lasers are all available and cheap.
Given the scale of industrial farming, robotics will never be a cost-effective way to totally replace herbicides and pesticides. That said, they will make serious inroads in specialty applications. They are also a new line of defense against pesticide resistance… until plants evolve to evade machine vision systems algorithms. (Which they will - forcing us to tweak the algorithms.) Still, though, one wonders what form robotic resistant insects will take.
The multi-billion dollar agricultural equipment industry is likely to see a large ramping up in all things robotic. If you are a budding roboticist, you could do worse than to start immediately thinking about how your robots can help protect a growing field of strawberries from snails!
Unlike many of the robot-takeovers that threaten human jobs, the robotic revolution of pest removal may not remove many humans from the process. Mechanical weeding and insect removal is already impractical for humans beyond very small scale farms. This is one of the major limitations placed upon the ‘organic’ farming model. Robots, in this case, have the potential give we humans more of what we want: wholesome organic food at industrial scales!
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History of Pesticide Use