Looks like we might have some robots working the fields in the near future. The United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced Friday that it plans to give $4.5 million in research grants in order to spur the development and utilization of robotics technology in agricultural production. The grants are part of the National Robotics Initiative, a federal research partnership comprised of NIFA, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
"We have seen tremendous advancement in robotic technology over the past five years - advancements now maker it possible for robots and humans to work together collaboratively," explained NIFA director Sonny Ramaswamy. "As agriculture is a labor-intensive industry, these new technologies have the potential to make the process more efficient, saving producers time and money, which ultimately benefits consumers."
Technologies to be investigated through the partnership include the automation of inspection, sorting, processing, and handling of animal or plan products, improved robots for inspection and sorting in greenhouses, and powerful rapid-sensing systems designed to detect crop damage, ripeness, size, shape, and other qualities of animal and plant products as well as water and air quality.
The initiative will also be bringing in both industry and academic experts in order to identify further research needs and train a new generation of scientists, technologists, and engineers.
This improved efficiency is also likely to lead to increased food production, meaning that if such technologies become widespread, they might be used to address the global food shortage that even now hangs over both the developed and the developing world like the proverbial Sword of Damocles. At this point, all it'll take for a world-wide crisis is a few bad crop yields.
"We've not been producing as much as we are consuming," warned UN Food and Agriculture senior economist Abdolreza Abbassian back in 2012. "That is why stocks are being run down. Supplies are now very tight across the world, and reserves are at a very low level, leaving no room for unexpected events next year."
Just because 2013 has passed (relatively) incident-free, doesn't mean we're free and clear just yet. Thankfully, this new technology might be just what we need to pull ourselves out of the fire. Here's hoping it's completed in time. Otherwise, well...
We're like as not going to have to confront a few rather unpleasant realities.