Science, technology & design

Fruit-picking robots

According to a recent United Nations report, the world will need to produce 70 per cent more food by 2050. But with a decreasing labour supply and increasing labour costs in many parts of the world, where will the human labour come from to harvest the food if we are able to grow it?

The answer is robots. In the US, low-cost agricultural labour, used to pick fruit in California and Florida, for example, is drying up thanks to stricter border controls on immigrants and a booming economy back in Mexico. So one solution is fruit-picking robots.

One firm making such robots is Harvest Automation, which produces the HV100 (better known as Harvey). These agricultural ‘bots are also used in nurseries to move plants back and forth. Meanwhile, the US Department of Agriculture has forked out $4.5 million in funding to develop machines that can automate farm work, especially fruit picking.

Interestingly, the reaction of farmers to the shift towards automation seems fairly positive, in contrast to the response of many people in manufacturing. So how long before we see a self-harvesting farm? Not long we suspect.

Ref: New Scientist (UK) 21 June 2014, ‘Green robo-fingers’ by A. Rutkin.
Search terms: agricultural labour, robots, fruit-picking, Harvest Automation, self-harvesting.
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More automation down on the farm

Truffles, as most French and Italian men and women will tell you, are black gold. They are valuable because finding them is tricky. Traditionally pigs and dogs have been used to unearth this buried treasure, but dogs like truffles too and therefore have a habit of eating them; pigs are difficult to train. Consequently, a handful of farmers have tried to cultivate truffles, which has met with limited success in regions of Chile, China and New Zealand.

Enter Symbios, based in Washington state (US), which is developing a way to map areas where truffles might be grown commercially. Working with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Symbios contacted people who have successfully grown truffles and gathered data about climate, geology, altitude, rainfall and a number of other variables. Armed with this data the company then overlaid commercially available map data to produce ‘truffle maps’ of regions where truffles could theoretically be grown. 2.2% of Tennessee, for example, scores a perfect 10 in terms of potential truffle production.

Symbios’ next challenge is to use similar mapping technology to predict where wild truffles may be found. After that, perhaps similar maps could be used to identify ideal wine growing regions or any other desirable and scarce food or drink for that matter.

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK), 8 March 2014, ‘Find dining’.
Search terms: truffles, map data, Symbios, cultivation.
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Autonomous ships

With all the hype about UAVs, driverless cars and unmanned aircraft, it’s hardly a surprise that the maritime industry is looking closely at remote-controlled ships. Given the electronics already found aboard cargo ships, the task should be relatively easy but, like driverless cars, legal and regulatory obstacles will provide the greatest barrier to implementation.

Nevertheless, given time (and incremental developments) we should see autonomous ships on the horizon fairly soon for two key reasons. First, the shipping industry, like the automotive and airline industries, is accident prone and accidents are usually the result of human involvement. Remove the humans, the theory goes, and the industry could become considerably safer.

The second factor is cost, or more precisely, profit. Recruiting a competent crew that is happy to spend weeks, or even months, at sea is becoming increasingly hard. Crews cost money, not only in terms of wages, but also accommodation and facilities that could otherwise be allocated to cargo. Furthermore, without a crew keen to complete a journey, ships carrying non-urgent goods could travel much slower, saving as much as 50% of fuel costs according to one estimate. On the other hand, as with delivery trucks, driving the ship is just one small function. The crew functions include engine room maintenance and deck and crane maintenance, they supervise the loading and discharge of the ship. There are always tricky issues with cargo stowage including sequencing, stability, trim, hazardous cargo, chilled cargo and over dimensional cargo.Ships are already quite automated but if the owner wants to maintain his ship then this remains a human function.

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK) 8 March 2014, ‘Ghost ships’.
Search terms: autonomous ships, sailors, accidents, regulation, cost, wages.
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The next big thing

What’s the next big thing in tech? There are lots of pundits, players and predictions, but figuring out a single sure thing (and even more difficult, the company that might succeed where others will fail) is practically impossible. None of this has stopped Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple from making multi-billion dollar bets on what’s next in their world – and creating it.

Facebook, on a popularity slide recently, despite a meteoric share price rise, is betting on virtual reality. Facebook’s shift to mobile platforms seems to have paid off and they certainly have the funds to make a few big bets. Buying Oculus, a virtual reality headset maker, for $2 billion could yet be seen as a bargain, although the company has yet to prove anything other than an idea. But what an idea it is. How about, for example, taking high-voltage electrodes and passing a current through your head to trick your brain into thinking it’s moving or doing something when it’s not? It’s gaming Jim, but not as we know it.

The bet here, clearly, is that virtual reality and augmented reality will be the next huge thing. Meanwhile, Google, which recently announced a plan to float a huge balloon over remote regions to allow access to the internet, is spread betting on the Internet of Things, robotics, smart homes and autonomous vehicles. At Apple, wearable computing seems to be the order of the day (wristbands to track health, payment systems, watches and new spins on TV).

Amazon, not to be outdone, is attempting to take over the rest of the retail landscape (see Amazon Fresh and Amazon Dash) and also speedily delivering everything you’ve just bought to your home too. So there you have the future. The mobile internet is now the last big thing and nobody knows what people will want next until they get it or it's given to them by the next big company.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 29-30 March 2014, ‘All eyes on the future’ by T. Bradshaw.
Search terms: virtual reality, augmented reality, wearable computing, Internet of Things, robotics, wristbands, delivery, Oculus, Facebook.
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3D printing: Oh yes we can

3D printing is taking off, partly because the range of materials you can now print with (and open source designs to print) is expanding rapidly. Materials now include biological tissue (printing organs for transplant), precious metals and even pizza ingredients. Despite this, 3D printers (really called ‘additive manufacturing machines’) are still hopeless at, for example, printing flat surfaces, because material is built layer by layer, thereby leaving a series of tiny ridges.

You could just polish anything roughly printed, but this takes time and costs money. Enter LUXexcel, a Dutch company which has found a way to print lenses for LED lights and reading glasses. Instead of printing layer by layer, the firm has pioneered a process where droplets of material are allowed to flow into each other to create a pool of liquid. This pool is measured by lasers to ensure an optimum shape and then the liquid is solidified using ultraviolet light.

Applications include custom LED lenses for one-off purposes, but could include unique replacement panels for stained glass, replacement vehicle lights (especially hard to obtain parts for old classic cars) and, ultimately, one-off prescription glasses (including the frame and case).

Ref: Economist Technology Quarterly (UK) 7 June 2014, ‘Smooth operator’.
Search terms: 3D printing, LUXexcel, LED lights, reading glasses, additive manufacturing machines.
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