ON THE ROAD TO THE FUTURE
Now halfway through the four-year grants, the RAPID project has already delivered some cyber surprises.
Like the time when the UC Merced team realized that gathering soil moisture samples from vineyards was its most tedious and time intensive task. Frustration led an engineering undergraduate student to design a robot-mounted device that could autonomously puncture soil for samples.
“This wasn’t something we envisioned doing when we applied for the grant but … when we visited our commercial partner they said ‘This is really super cool. We’d love having this device,’” Carpin explained.
The surprise for Viers was how his own thinking has changed.
“Initially I was pretty excited about what you might call the ‘actuation,’ having a robot able to physically manipulate an irrigation system,” said Viers, who also serves as the director of UC Merced’s branch of CITRIS, and as co-director of the UC Water Security and Sustainability Research Initiative.
“Now,” Viers said, “I’m much more resolute that the future of robotics in agriculture will be about data collection. … We currently leave it to farmers managing thousands of acres to keep it all (the information about a field’s water needs) in their heads as they are driving around in a pickup. But they can’t be everywhere at once, and memory can lapse.”
None of this is to say AI software and rolling robots will replace farmers and field jobs. Instead, the RAPID team is excited by how collaborative robotics could create new jobs for the new age of agriculture.
“I see a big opportunity for higher education, at UC and its partners in community colleges, vocational programs and at high schools,” Viers said. “There is going to be a whole new generation of machines in agricultural settings that will need mechanics — a different kind of mechanic who will use 3-D printers, have skills with operating systems, know how to troubleshoot algorithms, and can do the types of maintenance necessary for this whole new class of machines that we haven’t yet developed.”