Amazon's home robot Astro was first shown following a person when it was introduced earlier this year. It's a simple idea, but it has captured the imagination of people with its depictions in science fiction like R2-D2 or BB-8 from Star Wars, and in reality with research projects such as DARPA's robotic pack mule.
While robots are often used to carry water bottles, or other innocuous tasks like carrying one bottle of water, robots can also be used to transport tools and fruit from the orchard to a packing line. Artificially intelligent machines that can follow other machines or people can change how we view everyday objects like luggage and golf clubs. The makers of follower robotics are now trying to coordinate movement in the modern workplace.
Since the late 1990s, follower robots have been in development. They can be found on the ground or underwater. The initial forms were based on following the location a tag was in, but computer vision and deep learning have made it possible for AI to navigate the world by using cameras and other sensors.
Burro provides what appears to be an autonomous driving palette on a four-wheel ATV, which can freely move between rows of California fruit orchards.
You can train Burro by simply pressing the Follow button. Once you have completed the path, press the button again. Burro can follow you using up to 20 cameras, computer vision and GPS. It also memorizes your route. Burro can then transport goods by itself and relay the route to other Burro robots.
A Burro can weigh up to 500 lbs and carry up to 1,000 lbs. Burros are used by table grape growers to transport fruit from the vineyard to their workers. They then pack the goods in clamshells and load them onto trucks to be transported to grocery stores.
After three years of trials, approximately 100 Burro devices have been installed in California vineyards. With $10 million of new funding, the company hopes to quadruple this number.
Charlie Andersen, Burro CEO, says that robots have worked nearly 50,000 hours over the past five year in blueberry, raspberry and blackberry fields as well as in nurseries.
Software to manage hundreds of rovers in the field will be one of the beneficiaries of some of the new funding. Burro also plans to integrate Bloomfield Robotics tech that uses AI and computer vision to predict grape yields, and monitor crops for disease and fungus. Burro hopes to create a platform that coordinates predictive AI and machines in motion to support fruit and nut orchards, and vineyards.
Burro is also testing robotic arms attached to its pallets for cutting grapes from vines. This allows a robot to harvest, prune and de-leaf the vineyards. Andersen states that we are only doing the trimming and gripping. This is a very complex task and will not be feasible in commercial settings.
Computer vision is becoming more common among fruit and nut growers. Tastry uses AI to find combinations of grapes that mask the smoky flavor of vineyards damaged by wildfires. A cross-disciplinary team of biologists, AI researchers, and US Department of Agriculture scientists are looking for ways to protect vineyards against fungus.
Walt Duflock manages a Monterey County farm of 10,000 acres for cattle, table grapes and other crops. The Western Growers Association is a group of American farmers that makes up half of all the US's fruit-, vegetable and nut-growing farms.
Duflock met Burros founders during his time as a mentor at the Thrive agricultural startup accelerator. Automation is essential to solve labor shortages in agriculture, especially harvesting. He believes robots such as Burro could eliminate up to 20% of farm labor over time.