Robot Migrant Workers

As we enter the political season with such notable candidates as Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz, Americans will once again accuse hard working illegal immigrants as the ire of their economic pains.  As a son of an illegal immigrant, who escaped the Nazis as the soul survivor of his family, I take great offense. The truth is that since 2007 illegal workers are down to such a degree that farms in the Southwest are now employing robots.

 

Replacing migrant workers is Agrobot, a 14-arm automated harvester that easily wheels through rows of strawberry plants on farms in Califirnia.  Harnessing high-powered computing, color sensors and small metal baskets attached to the robotic arms, the machine gently plucks ripe strawberries and ignores the unripe fruit nearby.  Such tasks have long required the trained discernment and backbreaking effort of tens of thousands of relatively low-paid workers. But technological advances are making it possible for robots to handle the job, just as a shrinking supply of available fruit pickers has made the technology more financially attractive.

“It’s no longer a problem of how much does a strawberry harvester cost,” said Juan Bravo, inventor of Agrobot, the picking machine. “Now it’s about how much does it cost to leave a field unpicked, and that’s a lot more expensive.”

The Agrobot costs about $100,000 and Mr. Bravo has a second, larger prototype in development (with 60 arms!). Other devices similarly are starting to assume delicate tasks in different parts of the fresh-produce industry, from planting vegetable seedlings to harvesting lettuce to transplanting roses.

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Farmers of corn and other commodity crops decades ago replaced most of their workers with giant combines and other machines that can quickly cut and gather grain used for animal feed, food ingredients and ethanol. But growers of produce and plants have largely stuck with human pickers—partly to avoid maladroit machines marring the blemish-free appearance of items that consumers see on store shelves.

An abundant supply of workers, particularly from Mexico, willing to plant, pull weeds and harvest ripe crops for relatively low pay also had suppressed the need for mechanization. But the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. workforce has been declining since its peak in 2007, according to the Pew Research Center, in part because of increased job opportunities in Mexico, as well as tighter U.S. border patrols.

With workers in short supply, “the only way to get more out of the sunshine we have is to elevate the technology,” said Soren Bjorn, Americas unit head for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., the country’s largest berry brand. Driscoll’s largest berry grower, Reiter Affiliated Companies LLC, is partly financing the development of Mr. Bravo’s Agrobot.

Robots have their own drawbacks. They need maintenance and repair—Agrobot normally has 16 arms, but when the Wall Street Journal visited the farm two were recently on the fritz. Some farmworker advocates worry that increased mechanization could also help eliminate jobs that are still needed. And others fear it will give an additional advantage to large growers that can afford to invest in the latest equipment.

Proponents say increased mechanization of the fresh-produce industry could boost productivity, ultimately helping to tamp down price growth. It also could help farmers in California, who are struggling with a yearslong drought in the country’s largest produce state, get more from their fields, offsetting higher costs.

A machine developed by a Spanish entrepreneur automates the process of picking small produce like strawberries. Many farm owners hope it will help alleviate the impact of labor shortages. The labor shortage spurred Tanimura & Antle Fresh Foods Inc., one of the country’s largest vegetable farmers, last year to buy a Spanish startup called Plant Tape, whose system transplants vegetable seedlings from greenhouse to field using strips of biodegradable material fed through a tractor-pulled planting device.

On a recent morning in Salinas, Calif., Tanimura & Antle Chief Executive Rick Antle watched as two workers fed romaine-lettuce seedlings-—encased in the biodegradable strips like a belt of machine-gun bullets—into the device, which precisely cut the seedlings and drove them into the soil. The machine cruised at more than 6 miles an hour—lightning fast for a produce field. In commercial trials, Plant Tape has eliminated at least 10% to 15% of the overall work hours for growing romaine and celery, Mr. Antle said. Plant Tape is now ramping up production so more Tanimura & Antle fields can use it.

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Meanwhile, on the same day, the old method was still on display at a Tanimura & Antle celery field down the road. Half of a team of 16 workers slipped celery seedlings into a tractor-pulled machine that plugged them inches apart into rows of soil. The other half, trailing behind, manually smoothed dirt and straightened any misaligned plants. The operation covered about nine-tenths of an acre per hour, which at its fastest was equivalent on average to 0.9 miles an hour.

Tanimura & Antle in recent years has resorted to bringing hundreds of workers in from Mexico on costly, temporary visas for such work. The decades-old system needs to be replaced because “we don’t have the unlimited labor supply we once did,” Mr. Antle said.

Machines are doing more than picking produce. Altman Specialty Plants Inc., one of the country’s largest nurseries, has been using eight, squat robots for the past two years to ferry more than 1.2 million potted roses and other plants to new rows as they grow larger. The $25,000, self-driving machines have occasionally gotten stuck in mud, but they freed eight workers for other jobs and ultimately paid for themselves in 18 months, said Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director.

“This is the least desirable job in the entire company,” she said. With machines, “there are no complaints whatsoever. The robots don’t have workers’ compensation, they don’t take breaks.”

‘There are no complaints whatsoever. The robots don’t have workers’ compensation, they don’t take breaks.’
said Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director Reiter, the Driscoll supplier, is starting to deploy joystick-guided and remote-controlled machines that carry building supplies and boxes of picked produce through berry fields. They free up hundreds of worker hours a year that can be used for other tasks, said Nathan Dorn, the company’s director of farming systems.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bravo is planning a new version of his Agrobot strawberry harvester that will have 60 robotic arms, and require strawberry production on raised, hydroponic beds instead of low, dirt fields. Workers will simply sit atop the machine inspecting and packing berries that pass on a conveyor belt. He plans to begin commercial field trials with his machine this fall.

Last week, I presented a new construction machine to replace masons.  This week, a robotic harvester to replace farm hands. As more technology takes over the most unskilled and vulnerable workers, the ethical demands on a robotic society will only grow if not addressed directly by industry leaders. For example, for every worker we replace with bolts, we can invest a % of every dollar spent on robotics towards the re-education of human laborers.

Thank you to Ilan Brat of The Wall Street Journal for his original reporting of Argobot. 

Bob The Builder Bot

“Can we fix it?,” Bob the Builder screams to his animated army of construction vehicles. For a long time, humans have been guilty of anthropomorphizing its mechanical devices.  I mean how many times have you heard Siri tell you a “knock, knock” joke? However, today it is the devices that are laughing at us.

One of the most human forms of labor since the beginning civilization has been building.  Now, a team of architects and engineers at the University at Buffalo are designing and programming robots to replace human workers on construction sites.  Below is an example of a robotic masonry tool currently deployed in the market:

 

The University of Buffalo team has prototyped a series of robots called Onsite Construction Robots, or OSCR (below) for short. The latest stands 18 inches tall and weighs a little less than six pounds. It was designed to climb a ladder and carry three bricks.  The final prototype, with advanced grippers and powerful motors, will be able to stack five bricks, walk or crawl, and scan the site to track materials.

oscr-3 The four-legged robot would be able to grab a stack of bricks, carry them across a construction site, climb a ladder and deliver materials to the mason, who tells the robot what’s needed and where through a pair of smart glasses that scan the site in 3-D. Information is then transmitted to a developer or architect offsite who monitors the project.  However, if OSCR partners with SAM the robotic mason the level of automation will be exponentially heighten.

“The focus is shifting from robotics to co-robotics, where robots work with humans instead of replacing jobs,” said lead developer Michael Silver. “Masons are a skilled class in high demand, but it’s getting harder to find people to support them by doing the difficult work of lugging heavy materials around a site. Our tools will actually advance the mason’s skills and create more time for craft by automating more tedious aspects of the job.”

Another example of robots working alongside humans is at Buffalo Manufacturing Works, where collaborative human robots interact with humans in shared workspaces.  The UB research team hopes their bot-and-glasses combination will facilitate more advanced masonry, with masons leveraging the robot’s memory and computing power to increase the complexity with which bricks or stones are arranged.

“We’re moving robots out of the factory and into the field – that’s a huge next step,” Silver said. “By bringing materials, machines and software together, we’re developing new processes for making, and that will change architecture.”

While the research is still in its early stages, it has already garnered support from the American Institute of Architects and the New York State Council on the Arts. The researchers recently progressed to the second phase of the research: the development of “smart glasses” that wirelessly link the mason, robot and offsite simulations that architects, contractors and engineers use to map how a construction project is proceeding in space and time.

It is rumored that Alexander the Great created the secret society of Masons.  Now, OSCR and SAM are quickly climbing the masonry ladder to even surpass the 33rd level, to become the ultimate “Grand Botmaster.”

Google is Everything… and More

In the tech world there are few companies that elicit both fear and respect, Google is one of them.  While everyone this week was distracted playing Pac-Man on Google Maps, the big story is how they are taking over life science with robots.  There is not an industry today that Google does not touch from farming (Shopping Express) to defense (with their acquisition of Boston Dynamics). In fact, their latest patent intends on locking the code on building multiple robot personalities.  I am still wondering if a bipolar robot is a good idea… davinci-inline Now the big story, Google X Life Sciences division has partnered with Johnson & Johnson’s Ethicon to build the ultimate platform for robotic surgery.  The market for robotic surgery is growing at a pace of 12.6% CAGR. Wall Street believes that Mazor Robotics has 100% upside over the next 5 years, as well as the more pricy stock, Intuitive Surgical  the market leader with their da Vinci machine).  The concept of robot-assisted surgeries ahas come a long way from its roots in 1985 with the  scalpel-wielding T-800.  Today it is becoming as common as laparoscopic surgery, and why not just look at its precision in the video below:

As you can imagine real-world applications are more than painting a pretty picture, but include removing cancerous tissue, performing hysterectomies, and bypass surgery. The smaller incisions enabled by machines mean smaller scars and less bleeding for patients. Since its introduction, robotic surgery has had its share of skeptics, with a dozens of lawsuits around the US filed against Intuitive alleging that the da Vinci system claiming a higher rate of complications, including serious injuries and death. Even though the Food and Drug Administration eventually said that Intuitive had addressed all the agency’s concerns and approved a new version of the device, the company has continued to face allegations that its business practices allowed undertrained physicians to operate the devices, and that the devices themselves had critical problems.

So if the industry is growing with its share of distractors, could Google make it more efficient?  While the deal does not involve Google’s robotic team (yet), the quote from the internet giant was fairly vague on its intentions:

The deal “will help explore how the latest innovations in computer science and advanced imaging and sensors could be integrated into tools that help surgeons as they operate,” Google said in a statement.

For example, existing robotic surgery platforms, such as Intuitive Surgical’s da Vinci robots, have high-definition, 3-D capable endoscopes. A video feed gives a surgeon a view of your guts. Google says its goal is to use algorithms to analyze those on-screen images and do things like highlight blood vessels and display critical information on screen. In other words, says the

Google spokesperson, a new system would “help surgeons see better during surgery or help them more easily access information they rely on as they operate.” Similar technology powers the image-editing tools in Google’s photos app, as well as automated YouTube upload analysis that can recognize pirated content.

A Johnson & Johnson spokesperson says whatever the team comes up with might, for example, suggest the best places to make incisions based on the individual patient’s medical history—sort of a Google Maps for surgery. Google says it will not be involved in making the systems that actually control the surgical instruments. Johnson & Johnson already works with Intuitive Surgical on components for the da Vinci system, and says it will continue to do so, but the Google partnership will be for an entirely different hardware-and-software product. A spokesperson says the company hopes the new system will be more cost-effective for hospitals in developing nations, and that it’ll have an interface that improves a surgeon’s access to information during a procedure.

Given Google’s skill with software, it’s also tempting to hope that the company might actually make robot-assisted surgeries safer. These are incredible machines, but they’re still as fallible as the human controlling them. In 2013, the Colorado Medical Board charged physician Warren Kortz with malpractice after he injured several patients and left instruments inside them after robotic surgery procedures. And earlier this year, Johnson & Johnson stopped sales of its power morcellators—instruments used to cut up pieces of tissue for removal during a hysterectomy—after an FDA warning said morcellation could actually spread cancerous tissue during surgery. Whether the Google-J&J partnership can do all that remains to be seen. It needs to pass antitrust muster, first of all, and even then the project will have a long research and development phase. An actual product is still a year or two away. But one thing Google knows is how to build intuitive and straight-forward interfaces. Giving one of those to a surgeon controlling forceps- and scalpel-tipped robot arms poking around at a person’s innards seems like it would be a net win.

To sum up, the largest software/internet company has partnered with the largest medical supply/device firm to create a gigantic new medical robotic platform that includes powerful data with precise sensors.  Where does that leave the patient, possibly in a better place although one has to pay the piper and it might be starting with the letter G.

Editor’s note: The next update will be the week of April 13th

Aibo’s Cousin, A Service Dog?

Earlier this week, Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak suggested that Robots will make humans their pets, as he has no doubt artificial intelligence will take over the world.   His paranoia comes on the heels of warnings by Elon Musk and Steven Hawking.  Human pets? Just the contrary, robots are now our service dogs.

 

This week in London researchers at King’s College and Sheffield Hallam University developed a new ‘robot on reins’ that can help blind people navigate using tactile sensors and vibrations. The proof-of-concept currently looks like a vacuum cleaner or lawnmower but future versions will be smaller and more lightweight for home use.  Engineers said that in addition to helping the blind, these robots could also benefit firefighters (e.g, by helping them moving through smoke-filled buildings to find people more easily).

The small mobile robots are equipped with sensors that lead the way, with the user following up to 3ft  behind holding a rein. A special sleeve covering the user’s arm would then be fitted with electronic micro-vibrators. This sleeve would turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the blind person, firefighter or other user would have been trained to interpret. These vibrations could also provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object it finds.

sleeve

Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University, explained that the four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany. The team has also developed a so-called ‘tactile language’ for the robots and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes. The robot can also sense any hesitation or resistance from the user and adjust its pace accordingly. In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions. In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot, and by using an algorithm the robot could detect their level of trust (like my dog Buddy).

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London said, “we’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts.  Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.”

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A firefighter has 20 minutes to get in and out before his oxygen tank expires, a blind person is helpless without his guide dog or cane, in both instances trust is paramount. I think Wozniak, Musk and Harking should remember Roosevelt’s inspiring message, “we have nothing to fear, except fear itself.”

Investing in the Robotics Sector

Last week, I got flak from one reader for broaching the subject of ethics and robotics.  This week, I was pleased to learn about Clearpath’s $11 million in financing for developing new “ethical” robots.  According to the press release issued by the company, the majority of the funding will be applied to R&D to expand into new applications as the market for robots is starting to heat up.

In addition to its focus on expanding its revenues, the company is also concerned about the direction of the industry as a whole. Last year, Clearpath joined the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a group of activists working for policies to prevent the production of autonomous devices that are able to fire weapons without human intervention.  As part of that, the company made a pledge that it would not play any role in the development of autonomous weaponized devices.

Clearpath-Robotics-Husky-e1426720202779-1940x1092According to Clearpath’s CEO, Matt Rendall, “There are no technical impediments to building killer robots…only policy can stop it. So we made the decision to put our stick in the ground and say ‘this is the line we will not cross.’ We hoped that if we put it out there, we’d get people talking about it.”

As an investor in the space, I have always felt that socially conscious companies succeed best, and Clearpath’s story is a remarkable in itself.  The company has gone from a small angel concern in 2010 to one of the leading providers of autonomous robots in the mining space.  Clearly, the company seems to be on the right path (pun intended) to take advantage of the burgeoning robotic revolution.

Clearpath’s capital raise is a sign of the overall growth of the industry.  This boom is being driven by new the demand for robots by small to mid-size companies.  As an example, China (the workshop for the world) became the largest buyer of industrial robots in 2013, as factories like Foxconn and others look to drive productivity in the face of labor costs and shortages.  According to the International Federation of Robotics, one in five robots sold globally in 2013 were bought by Chinese manufacturers, overtaking tech-savvy Japan for the first time.

Therefore it is no surprise that Rodney Brooks’ Rethink Robotics just closed on $26 million this week from Goldman Sachs and GE Ventures.  A large portion of the funds will go to support the rollout for Baxter’s younger (but more skilled) brother, Sawyer. Jim Lawton, chief marketing officer at Rethink Robotics, says China is likely to be a big market for its Sawyer robot. “China is being particularly hit by labour shortages and labour rates. We had one customer who recently went through the Chinese new year and 60 per cent of his employees did not return.”

Unveiled on Thursday, Sawyer is a single-armed robot that is more accurate, faster, and smaller than is older two-armed brother. This enables Sawyer to accomplish a wider range of tasks, such as machine tending and circuit board testing.  Sawyer enters the market with some competition from Denmark’s Universal Robots’ new UR3, a smaller table-top machine that can also be used to assemble, polish, glue and screw a range of components.  Today UR’s robots are used to pack millions of eggs and can also be found in Volkswagen’s Salzgitter engine plant in Germany.  Last year, Volkswagen said it plans to use robots to cope with a shortage of new workers caused by retiring baby boomers.

Dan Kara, robotics practice director at ABI Research, believes the latest models will help boost the number of collaborative robots being used in factories. “The dexterity of the new generation of co-operative robots is improving . . . and they have the added advantage of working safely and effectively in workspaces occupied by humans,” says Mr Kara.

Lightweight collaborative robots are cheaper, more dexterous, easier to move between tasks and do not require specialist programming skills.  Many of them can be taught new moves by simply taking the robot arm and moving it to show it what to do. The price tag for the new Sawyer robot is $29,000, compared with a six figure sum for an industrial robot. Universal Robots sells its flexible, lightweight robot arms for between €20,000 to €30,000. Obviously the price point equal to the annual salary of a human, makes these robots an attractive value proposition for small to mid-size factories.  In addition, many factories like Foxconn are employing robots to meet the stricter worker safety standards by their clients (i.e., Apple).  The question is when robots replace workers, will the humans be given new jobs that require greater skill and understanding that is not yet available in the current crop of robots…

Rethink has trialled Sawyer with several manufacturing companies, including Jabil, a US-based electronics company. It has received hundreds of pre-orders for the robot and plans to launch it widely next January.  But despite the excitement over human-machine collaboration, sales of co-bots are a small proportion of the 179,000 industrial robots sold each year. The majority of robot sales still continue to be the traditional, large caged machines (for the time being).

The good news is that the robotic revolution has arrived and the capital markets are waking up.  The bad news is ethical questions about robots and their interactions with humans will not go away (even if some of my readers wish they would) it is up to companies like Clearpath to lead the way before regulation forces the industry.