AI News, Robots Podcast: Interview with Harvest Automation's CTO Joseph Jones

Robots Podcast: Interview with Harvest Automation's CTO Joseph Jones

As the first employee of iRobot, he invented the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot, which to date has sold in more than 3 million units, and next to numerous research articles, Jones has also authored three books on robotics, and holds 15 patents.

Agriculture may not seem like the easiest way to start:it's an outdoor application which means dealing with rain, mud, and temperature variations, environments are typically very unstructured, your typical user is unlikely to be highly skilled in software or automation, and tasks are normally accomplished using big machinery - all very different from the Roomba.

Their robots lift and move the plants to perform tasks like spacing potted plants in grids - an operation that has to be repeated as plants grow, to efficiently use space at first, and then again to avoid that they grow into each other.

The inventor of the Roomba just launched a weed-killing robot named Tertill

Franklin Robotics, a Massachusetts-based robotics company with a team that includes the inventor of the Roomba, just launched a Kickstarter campaign for its newest robot.

Instead, chief technology officer Joe Jones says, it’s relying on cheap capacitive sensors to determine whether the plants it has brushed up against are tall or short.

So anything that’s short enough to go under the robot is considered a weed, and anything taller is considered a plant.” What about short plants that you don’t want Tertill to whack?

One feature the team has considered adding is a kind of motion sensor-triggered reaction that would cause the bot to move and help scare pests and rodents away.

“I used to be quite against neural nets,” Jones said over the phone, “but they’ve won me over.” Tertill costs $199 on Kickstarter right now, and is expected to ship in March 2018.

iRobot first started selling the robot vacuum cleaners in 2002, after years of Jones trying to get the bot off the ground (erm, floor).

A Roomba for Your Garden

The Tertill, which has been prototyped and is scheduled to launch in summer 2017 for $250, operates autonomously by using solar power, sensors to identify obstacles, and a string trimmer to cut weeds.

In 2013, Harvest Automation launched a wheeled robot, nicknamed Harvey, which moved potted plants around nurseries and greenhouses, freeing human workers to do more important tasks.

The Swedish company Husqvarna has sold small robotic lawnmowers for years, and a Utah-based startup is developing an autonomous weeding robot called the Weedobot, but there are no consumer-orientedweeding robots on sale yet.

The latest prototype uses four-wheel drive to navigate a variety of terrains unsupervised and inward-tilting wheels so the robot can grip surfaces and extricate itself when it drives onto rocks and into holes.

It will wirelessly transmit data about plant and soil health to owners’ smartphones, so they can improve their gardens, and it will repel foraging animals such as rabbits and squirrels by moving and making noise when they approach.

Jones envisions creating a system of complementary robots that could give a large number of plants individual care by observing them, providing micro-nutrients at the exact time and in the exact amount needed, pruning branches and buds to maximize crop yields, and eradicating pests.

This robot might take the dirty work out of farming

Some jobs are so mind-numbing and backbreaking that no one with other options wants to do them.

It's a monotonous task, and the associated labor represents 40 percent of growers' costs in a $17 billion market.

So far, Harvest Automation has about $25 million in funding and 29 customers, most of which start out with four of the $30,000 bots.

By 2006, iRobot had gone public, and there were fewer opportunities to work on projects outside the consumer-products or military realm.

Ideally, you want to divide these systems into tasks that are best performed by robots and tasks that are better for people.

Those plants start out as seedlings in pots that are generally packed close together to maximize space.

People — typically migrant workers — have to bend down and move those pots, keeping the spaces between them consistent.

We started a pilot program in California to study the potential for growing specialty food crops — such as strawberries and tomatoes — in pots and using robots to space them out.

They would no longer be restricted by the soil on the ground but could instead fill pots with the requisite growing media.

That process would also allow farmers to plant more crops, because robots don't need space to walk between plants.

We've filed for a patent on a robot that can examine and detect problems in individual plants, allowing farmers to narrowly target their responses.

We're not going to fire anybody.” Currently, growers have a shortage of workers, so they plan to keep them on and give them higher-value tasks.

Plus, to add another company's robot to a warehouse, you'd have to take out all the items in the warehouse to install the system the supplier created.

Among those that didn't make the cut: MoodroidA farm-dwelling robot to pick up cowpies and deliver them to a methane digester for conversion into energy DoodroidA house-dwelling robot to pick up dog feces from lawns

Joe Jones: Roomba inventor. Roboticist. Vindicated pioneer.

A few months later, in February 1992, he was hired by iRobot, a new company that had started when Colin Angle, (one of the three founders), received a $20,000 contract from a Japanese company to build small robots.

When he left, almost 15 years later, there were 300 employees—and at the peak, there were nearly 600.

'Colin used to joke that in the first two years,' said Jones, 'they never had enough money at the beginning of the month to make payroll at the end of the month.'

So while his colleagues at iRobot were receptive to the idea of a floor-cleaning robot, it wasn't until 1999 that the company had enough money to develop it—at that point, the number of employees was up to 20.

Roomba became one of first, popular, home robots, and has since sold more than ten million units across the globe.

In 2006, Jones convinced a few others to leave iRobot to start another company, Harvest Automation, where they built a robot for the greenhouse industry.

But while Harvest started out doing well, shipping to 30 farms across the country, the market developed slowly.

'It proved there's a billion dollar market for robots in warehousing, so now, a number of people are jumping into that.'

Harvest's new warehouse robot, expected to be on sale early next year, will compete directly with Kiva.

He co-founded Franklin Robotics, where he continues to work with small machines, this time with the goal of selling small robots to gardeners.

But if you need to take action from the ground, or look at the base of a plant under a canopy, drones can't help with that.

The UN report, 'How to Feed the World in 2050' shows that we will have to increase agriculture production by 70% to feed all the new people on the planet—and this is when you can't use any more land or any more water.

You have to build a gigantic software system that runs on a central computer that tells robots where to go—but I wasn't interested.

Agribots: The future of farming

Farmers in California are replacing workers with robots as unmanned fields leave millions of dollars in crops unharvested. A boom in agriculture technology could render low-wage farm jobs obsolete....