Did you know that the USDA has a "National Robotics Initiative"? How fun is that? And last week the USDA announced that it's not just for fun: The NRI is getting $3 million to give in grants to robotics programs around the country to create robot-led agricultural advances.
The National Robotics Initiative is actually a multi-departmental program; plenty of agencies are included, from NASA (duh) to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (also duh) to the Departments of Health and Energy. The USDA might seem a strange bedfellow with all those techie agencies, but robotics have been a huge part of agriculture for years. Just a sample: We’ve seen farms attended entirely by robots, a robot that can herd sheep like a border collie, a robot that can sort two tons of grapes in 12 minutes, and a Roomba-like robot that can distinguish good leaves (lettuce) from bad ones (weeds) and pick the bad ones.
So maybe it should come as no surprise, then, that the USDA is handing out National Robotics Initiative cash to programs from coast to coast. The USDA announced these new grants last Tuesday, and included three promising examples. At UC Davis, robots will be used to figure out low-cost, high-efficiency harvesting systems for orchards. At the University of Minnesota, home of the honeycrisp apple, a grant will go to creating algorithms so owners of apple orchards can use off-the-shelf robots to pick, fertilize, and plant. And at the University of Pennsylvania, the grant will go towards figuring out new ways to use UAVs, better known as drones, to gather and analyze farm data.
This kind of research is happening in the private sphere already, so the public funding is welcome: it can go to more experimental projects, or projects whose aim is something other than pure profit. You can read more about the announcement here.