China’s state publication People’s Daily released a YouTube video on January 14, 2022, announcing the development of a domestically-built “yak” robot that can carry up to a 160kg load for short distances. The machine is a copy of the innovation-pioneering Boston Dynamics “Big Dog” robot, shown in 2014 in the photo above, that also serves as a platform to test self-navigation technology over unpaved surfaces.
The Chinese model is not as powerful as the US one. It runs on batteries. It’s an inefficient machine by any stretch of the imagination; but in a country like China that has real needs for short-haul robots, such concepts can potentially find practical uses beyond being military, last-mile, ammo carrier technology demonstrators, as they are in the US. It remains to be determined if China will reap the full benefits of this technology.
These robots share sensor, navigation, and artificial intelligence technologies with their paved surface counterparts,:self-driving vehicles. Unlike their streetwise cousins, they aren’t saddled with the need to fit into existing transportation infrastructure, a process that places great strains on transitioning lane-keeping assistance features on cars to fully autonomous taxi drivers.
They live in the open and can work on any terrain. The military has done most of the research in this field. Depending on the degree of “ethical AI” built into these robots, one can create a docile and helpful robot, or a ruthless “terminator”. Coming originally from a defense analyst background, that’s interesting, potentially terrifying; but not all that exciting.
These off-road robots are exciting because they have a different purpose. Agricultural robotics. It’s a need increasingly driven by labor problems; namely, people leaving farms for towns and cities. This problem exists in all countries, including the United States and China. Both countries have a shortage of workers. The megatrend of automation is to keep production cost-effective and efficient are the future.
John Deere wins my vote as the top agricultural robot company announcement for January 2022. The company announced the launch of a fully-autonomous tractor at Las Vegas’ Consumer Electronics Show.
I’ve been an observer of industrial farm technology for a few years now, ever since I first watched a flock of harvesters working cornfields in the US Midwest and learned that they were controlled by carefully planned and automated programs that pre-mapped the fields. Safety monitors were required to ensure that nothing could go wrong with these machines.
Unlike the diminutive Chinese “yak”, the Deere tractor is huge. More like a sci-fi “Transformer.” It’s an industrial scale, off-road machine. It’s a self-driving overlander that uses a plow. But it’s a sensor and AI package
John Deere believes that it is now possible to have robots without humans in control of them. It allows farmers to use one robot to work in a field and another machine to help solve their labor shortage problem. That’s the theory anyway. According to the announcement video, the first tractor will be rented out to farmers to debug and test how useful it is. This happens later in the year. It will be a megatrend seed, if it succeeds, it is likely to spread worldwide.
As with all technological advances, they raise new questions. These are some of them:
I’m curious how the economics of these complex pieces of equipment will work at scale. The machines can be expensive. To keep them in production, you need to operate a fleet of them on contract across many farms. Therefore the operation and maintenance cost makes perfect sense.
I’m also curious how that will translate to smaller-scale farming in countries where plots and traditions are less industrial, but labor shortage issues also exist.
Finally, like all early-stage solutions, I’m pondering how adaptable this technology is. It will allow us to develop new areas of agriculture in the event that we have to change how and where food is produced to feed our planet.
Regardless, we’ll be seeing more of these sensors and smart-equipped robots over the next few years. And that’s a megatrend we should all be interested in following.