Robot Gardeners: No Green Thumbs, But Could Prove Handy


Move over, Martha Stewart. Some new gardeners are coming to town, or at least, to Cambridge.

Small and produced for $3,000, they were created by a class of undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the hope of aiding farmers in growing their crops.

According to the Associated Press, the technology allows the robots to move around the garden on a base similar to the Roomba vacuum, using a computer to network the machines to cherry tomato plants. The network apparently communicates when the plants need water or fertilizer. The robots get the hint and sprinkle them with water from a pump.

Meantime, the gadget gardeners use a camera to figure out when the fruit is ripe for picking. I don’t think they make and toss salads yet, but perhaps that could be next.

MIT professor, Daniela Rus, got the project off the ground with a two-part study course on the basics of making and programming robots, and by the fall term, her students were growing tomatoes with the help of the robots’ mechanical arms. It was all part of a challenge of tackling a “distributed robotic garden” to be completed by the end of the semester.

The lab now houses four cherry tomato plants in a plywood base covered in fake grass and beside the pots is a docking station for the robot gardeners.

Scientists say robots have been effective as factory assembly workers and for in-home purposes, such as serving as health care aides. But they also could be useful in agriculture by tending to the soil in unpredictable environments.

According to Wikipedia, the main application of robots in agriculture has mostly been at the harvesting stage, letting them perform functions like thinning apple trees, picking fruit and asparagus and shearing sheep.

While millions have been spent on research, the ag industry is behind other industries in using robots because the jobs on farms aren’t always predictable and formulaic. Tending and nurturing can depend on the type of fruit, color and other factors.

“None of the machines have sufficient capacity to compete with human beings,” says Tony Grift, an associate professor in the Dept. of Agriculture and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois.

But MIT professors are leading future scientists down that road, figuring robots might do less harm to the environment than humans.

“Agriculture contributes a lot of damage to the land, the soil, the water and the environment,” says Rus. “So if we can figure out a way of using robots and automation to deliver nutrients to plants – pesticides, fertilizers, water when it’s needed – instead of sort of mass spreading them, then we hope we would have an impact on the environment.”

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.