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MIT Robot Gardeners Can Grow Tomatoes, But Can't Pick Them

Undergraduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are currently developing a team of robots that they hope will be able to streamline agricultural labor, USA Today reports.

A year ago, Professor Daniela Rus, who heads MIT's Distributed Robotics Lab, challenged her students to build a "distributed robotic garden" during this most recent Fall semester, the second half of their two-semester-long course. By Christmas break, the students were watching with satisfaction as a crew of shin-high, roving robots brought a small garden of cherry tomato plants to life.

Informed by sensors embedded in the plants' soil, the robots are able to automatically deliver fertilizer and water to the tomato plants when necessary. The robots are also equipped with cameras, with which they document each plant's yield, and with software that informs them of how long it typically takes the tomatoes to ripen. Ideally, this technology would enable the robots to nurture and harvest the plants, potentially reducing the need for farm labor and lessening the environmental impact of indiscriminate fertilization. But, as is often the case, the results of the project have not been ideal.

As smart as they may be, the robots are incapable of consistently picking the tomatoes, due to the unpredictability of where, exactly, on the plant they'll sprout. Of the robots' inability to actually harvest the tomatoes, 21-year-old computer science major Huan Liu told USA Today, in a way befitting a brilliant MIT student, "The tomatoes, they come out of nowhere, or just in weird places." So, essentially, the problem is that the dumb tomato plant won't make the dumb tomatoes crop up in the exact same spots every time.

It seems to us that these kids are, in those immortal words, smart enough to make it rain, but too dumb to come in from out of it. [From: USA Today]

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Tags: agriculture, future tech, FutureTech, gardening, mit, robot, robotics, top



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