Farm Bots have been the shared wet dream of engineers and AgroCorp ever since Uncle Owen bargained with the Jawas for agricultural drones in A New Hope. And with farmers now bouncing around on auto-steer tractors that follow GPS-based fertilizing guides, the days of unmanned agriculture may not be far off. A prototype of this particular future is Prospero, the Autonomous Micro Planter.
According to Dave Dorhout, the farm bot’s creator, Prospero “uses a combination of swarm and game theory,” and is meant to be deployed as a group of “autonomous robots that tend the crops and harvest them.” In the video Dorhout posted to demonstrate his creation (appropriately set to SkyNet-style synths) Prospero cranks and whirs around a patch of soil, scans it with his underbody sensory array to determine if a seed has been planted, digs a hole when satisfied, plants the seed, and covers his tracks. Before Prospero moves onto the next patch of earth, it sprays the freshly planted seed with a mist of fertilizer and, if other robots are nearby, signals to its buddies via coded IR transmissions that the patch of field has been tended to. Other robots charged with watering the seed or harvesting it take note of the planting and schedule their own maintenance.
As pointed out by the Texas A&M research paper “Robot Agriculture—The Future of Agricultural Mechanisation,” the idea of robotic agriculture is not a new one. The trouble is manufacturing a robot adaptable to real-world variables. “The approach is now to develop smarter machines that are intelligent enough to work in an unmodified or semi-natural environment. . . Treating crop and soil selectively according to their needs by small autonomous machines is the natural next step in the development of Precision Farming.” Prospero is an exact application of this research, with an army of small, specialized robots replacing the massive, single-function farming machines of today.
As agriculture has industrialized and crop biodiversity has narrowed down to mostly wheat, corn and, soybeans, the technology that tends to these foodstuffs has generally reached a plateau. For all the iPod hookups, GPS units, and surround-sound tractor cab interiors John Deere is flaunting, the general functions of farm equipment haven’t changed much. We can produce more than enough of our chosen crops with terrible efficiency. The advent of Prospero-type machines could change the way farmers use their lands, planning crops by the foot instead of by the acre, and potentially allowing for some much-needed crop diversity. Never mind that an army of Prosperos could supplant the human farmer entirely.