Image: Robotic gardener tends tomato plants
The New Green Thumb: The robotic gardener tends tomato plants.
updated 4/8/2009 12:54:01 PM ET 2009-04-08T16:54:01

Fruit and veggies without the fuss are the promise of a new robot being developed by scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The robot could someday plant, tend and harvest your garden for you.

"Right now we are just using cherry tomatoes," said Nikolaus Correll, a professor at MIT who, along with his students, is developing the robotic gardener. "But in the future I could see us doing all kinds of fruits and vegetables."

The scientists work with small tomatoes because they have a small robot. It is based on the circular Roomba robotic floor cleaners, 12 inches diameter. On top of the Roomba sits the robotic arm and an on-board computer, in this case a small Dell laptop. A robotic arm, equipped with a camera and flat gripper, extends an additional 31 inches.

In this video, the robot pulls up to a docking station and "pees" on a tomato plant to water it. The robot moves to another tomato plant and uses the Web cam to recognize a tomato and grab it with the gripper.

The robot gardener began as a project to teach MIT students about robotics. A person might find it easy to walk up and pick a tomato, but the same task is difficult for a robot. Deciding just what shade of red means the tomato is ripe, applying the right amount of pressure to grab the fruit without damaging it, and then twisting the fruit free are all skills that must be taught to a robot.

The robotic gardener "combines a lot of autonomous robotic movements: force control, vision, movement," said Correll. "I always thought it would be a good scholarly project to teach."

Robot gardeners help students learn the basics of software and hardware engineering, but agriculture is also big business.

Sanjiv Singh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has been developing robots for use in large-scale agriculture. Singh says there are many opportunities for robots in farms and orchards, from weeding to harvesting, that could make agriculture faster and more efficient.

"We won't go from humans to robots in one pass," said Singh. "It will take small improvements to the entire growing process. But I'm very excited about the prospect of machines in agriculture. For many reasons it's the right thing to do, and it's a fantastic educational tool as well."

In the future MIT's robotic gardening team hopes to try fruits that would present other challenges, like strawberries on the ground or miniature oranges, which wouldn't change positions as the plant grows.

If you have a garden with small plants, don't expect to buy a robotic gardener for another few years. More improvement needs to be made to the system, and each robot now costs an estimated $2,500. But in several years robotic gardeners might be a reality.

"The long-term goal is that someone could have a little 10 meter by 10 meter greenhouse that would just spit out fruits and vegetables," said Correll. "All you would have to do is add water and nutrients, and the robot would do the rest."

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