originally published January 3, 2015

Organics Meet Robotics

By organics, I mean the kind at the supermarket — the pesticide-free produce.

I think one of the most important changes that will come out of advancements in robotics is something that’s gotten very little discussion: it could revolutionize pest control, and make chemical pesticides obsolete.

Imagine a field of soybeans or asparagus or whatever, patrolled by a squad of robots. Ground crawlers identify every little weed by species, and pull out anything unwanted. They also categorize, and deal with, every beetle or worm they encounter. Periodically through the field there are poles with scanners on top — lidar or whatever — which spot and track every flying insect. (If you think that sounds too difficult, I’ll mention that such trackers are being developed right now for mosquito zappers.) A more tightly spaced ring of poles surrounds the field’s edge, above a plastic barrier buried in the upper part of the soil. That first line of defense makes sure that no insect enters the space without a once-over — at least not at low altitude. If it’s even mildly undesirable, a small drone pops up and physically blocks its path forward. With any luck, it’ll turn away after one or two blocking encounters. If it’s very persistent, or if it’s a little bit persistent and it’s also on the short list of serious pest insects, it then gets munched. If any pest insects get past the perimeter, the inner defenses munch them immediately. The result: crops that are free of both pests and chemicals, and no realistic way for the bugs or weeds to ever build up any resistance or immunity. If any of them ever manage to fool the robots, a programming change soon takes that ability away again.

The first step, of giving any unwanted bug a chance to turn back, should help minimize the ecological impact. Bugs might even evolve to start avoiding farms.

Now there’s no reason the crops inside have to be organic. They might still use synthetic fertilizer or be genetically modified. But they’d be pesticide-free, and the extra cost that pests impose on organic produce would be gone, since both use the same pest control methods. Organic produce would be more available than ever. But then again, it might be more irrelevant as well, since 90% of the reason for buying organic is to avoid pesticides.

I think this will happen. Mass-produced robots of various sizes will be capable of all sorts of tasks that require ubiquitous attention to small details, from weeding your lawn to separating recyclable materials out of garbage. Or, for that matter, harvesting — the one remaining area where human labor is still often subject to working conditions that approach slavery.

Of course, unplanned side effects may occur. I imagine rural roads becoming packed with flies, trapped by fields on either side. We’ll work those out.

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