Name: John Payne
Member since: 2011-01-15 22:59:58
Last Login: 2015-02-14 20:10:17



In 1976, I attended the Social Ecology Summer Program at Goddard College, Vermont. At the very end of that summer I saw my first personal computer, which, rightly or wrongly, I've long assumed was a pre-production Apple II, however unlikely that might seem. In any event, other experiences from that summer combined with the realization that computing was about to become ubiquitous formed in me the beginnings of a dream about using robotic machinery to transform agriculture (and land management in general) for the better. This dream has persisted and grown more detailed and persuasive ever since, and, along with the increasing detail, I developed a general interest in the various technologies which together make up robotics. On The WELL , after years of scattered brainstorming and random proselytizing, I opened the Augmentation and Robotics Conference (augbot.ind). This conference has never been particularly active but it provided me with a venue where discussion of robotics was at least topical. In the current, elaborated state of my dream, I now imagine intensive intercropping using soil-conserving no-till methods, combined with the protection of rare and endangered plant species and the provision of habitat for animals, all rolled together in a single system, which could also respond to weather forecasts and might even adjust itself for market conditions. Over the last few years I've shared most facets of this dream via my Cultibotics blog . Another long-standing interest is automatic transportation systems, such as some of those described on the Innovative Transportation website . I work as a transit dispatcher, using a GPS-generated display and voice communications to help keep a circulator bus route running smoothly.

Recent blog entries by cultibot

26 Mar 2011 (updated 26 Mar 2011 at 02:45 UTC) »

Some Things Can't Be Done Without Robots

I had pretentions of being a back-to-the-land hippy before I ever became seriously interested in robotics, but my brother successfully popped that bubble with a simple, unarguable observation, that most people don't want to go back to subsistence farming. So far as that went, he was right, but that didn't make the abusive practices of modern agriculture acceptable. I didn't have an answer, but I kept looking for one.

I had a pretty good idea of what computing was about from an introduction to CS class in which we wrote FORTRAN programs on cardpunches. At that scale there was no help to be found from that direction, but the advent of the microprocessor changed everything. Suddenly it became thinkable to have mobile devices each with its own electronic brain. My mind reeled with the possibilities, but there were a million unknowns.

One thing was clear, though, if Moore's Law was even close to being correct it wouldn't be long before the speed of the electronics was no longer the hangup. It would be the mechanical designs, the software, much of which would depend on transforming biological knowledge into computer code, and the chicken/egg problem of creating an industry and a market for that industry's products at the same time.

And that's pretty much where we are now. The speed of the electronics has so far exceeded the other pieces of the puzzle that even if we might wish for still more it's a moot point. We're not putting what's available to good use.

Remember, we're talking here about getting what we need from the land while honoring the back-to-the-land aesthetic of living lightly upon it, as a species, but not about people fleeing the cities to scratch out their personal livelihoods with whatever meager assemblage of skills they might manage to collect. That could be more destructive than factory farms.

The solution, really the only possible solution if we're to stop soil erosion, ground water and stream contamination, the loss of biodiversity, and the gutting of rural culture, is robots. That's right, robots.

Only by substituting machines which can be invested with some understanding of ecology, or which are at least well suited to play a role in an ecologically sound approach, for the dumb machines currently in use, can we have it all, our comfortable lives, a reliable supply of food of varied types, and a clear conscience.

I'd love to be telling you about all of the cool developments in cultivation robotics, how this team had succeeded in building a system that could differentiate between closely related species immediately upon sprouting, and how another had created a tiny robot that ran on the body fluids of the aphids it consumed. I wish I could report that the USDA had funded research into intermingling rare and endangered native species with crop species and making room for moderate wildlife populations without sacrificing too much commercial productivity. Heh, at least I can truthfully say it could happen, which seemed pretty far fetched just one year ago.

Realistically, though, nearly all of that sort of work remains to be done, and it'll be a great ride when it finally does begin to happen!

Key term: Precision Agriculture

In considering how robotics might be applied to agriculture, a current trend to watch goes by the name Precision Agriculture. This series of posts on provides some idea what's meant by the term and how it's used.

25 Feb 2011 (updated 25 Feb 2011 at 20:11 UTC) »

Sony’s War On Makers, Hackers, And Innovators

An article by Phillip Torrone on Make's blog declares Sony an enemy for all makers, hackers, and innovators and explores the company's long history of going after legitimate innovation, hobbyists, and competition.

14 Feb 2011 (updated 14 Feb 2011 at 17:17 UTC) »

why I want to replace tractors

Tractors are good for one thing, pulling something that's difficult to move, generally because moving it means displacing soil, turning over the top layer with a plow, slicing it and turning it slightly with a disc, or simply clawing through it with a harrow. They can, of course, be used to pull lighter loads, but their design is driven by the need to apply strain to a tow bar.

Displacing soil (tillage) might be termed the original sin, although overgrazing resulting from large herds of domestic animals moving too slowly/frequently over marginal land predates it. Through excessive aeration, tillage burns through humus (the organic content that, among other things improves the ability of soil to retain water), and exposes the soil surface to wind and water erosion. It also consumes a considerable amount of energy, usually in the form of diesel fuel.

To make matters worse, mechanical tillage works best with the worst cropping practice, monoculture, where a single type of seed is sown over an entire field, effectively all at once, and the crop typically harvested by shearing off everything more than a few inches above ground level. It's a practice that's efficient in terms of the number of man-hours required per land area, but at a terrible cost.

Personally, though, I have another reason for wanting to replace tractors; they're dangerous. I grew up in a farming community, and, of the farmers I knew as a child, two were crushed by overturning tractors (inherently unstable because they're designed for traction), and another was killed by a falling disc section.

So please forgive me if I seem a little too zealous, too much in a hurry to retire a nineteenth century technology and replace it with something not yet available, something so different that it will require a systemic overhaul, one long overdue in my humble opinion.

An Initiative to Keep America's Robotics Roadmap Relevant

Did you know the United States has a roadmap for robotics? It does! In 2006, a one-day workshop titled Science and Technology Challenges for Robotics was organized by George Bekey of USC, Vijay Kumar of UPenn, and Matthew Mason of CMU. A summary report of that workshop states There was an enthusiastic response to the workshop with over 85 participants. Discussions had to be cut short because of time constraints. This could clearly have been a two-day workshop. There were many volunteers who were ready to take on more responsibilities to promote the discipline. (Vijay Kumar has recently been interviewed on Robots Podcast and was mentioned on even more recently.)

During the process which followed that workshop, Matthew Mason and Henrik Christensen of Georgia Tech collaborated on an essay which summarized the state of robotics and previewed the findings of the effort to produce a roadmap for robotics. (Before occupying the KUKA Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, Henrik Christensen was the founding Chairman of EURON, the European Robotics Research Network.)

The final roadmap report was presented in May, 2009, before the Congressional Robotics Caucus, however, in the effort to produce that report, the call for the formation of an American Robotics Network (9th slide) appears to have fallen by the wayside.

On January 22nd, Professor Christensen posed the question Are we ready for an American Robotics Network on his blog, saying that he had started a discussion regarding the organization of an American Robotics Network. He has also discussed the formation of such a network in a brief essay on his website. In the recent blog post, he says I would like to get this underway as soon as possible to make sure that we can leverage the momentum from a National Robotics Initiative. It will also be an important mechanism to make sure that we can maintain a push forward.

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