The long-term goal is to develop an autonomous green house consisting of autonomous robots where pots and plants are enhanced with computation, sensing, and communication. The network of robots, pots, and plants transforms energy, water and nutrients into produce and fruits. In this type of precision agriculture system water and nutrients will be delivered locally on-demand and fruit will be harvested optimally. Plants will drive the robots' activities in the garden using sensors to monitor their local environment conditions, a plant-specific model of growth for making predictions about the state of fruit, and interaction with robots for establishing an inventory of fruit.
From an economical perspective, cultivation of specialty crops (such as fruits and vegetables) require a huge amount of manual labor and cultivation when compared with broad-land crops. This need has recently led to multiple initiatives in the United States (e.g. the Comprehensive Automation for Specialty Crops (CASC) program) and Europe (e.g. with in the scope of the 7th Framework program which aims at sustainable crop and forestry management, among others).
This project describes some first steps toward creating an autonomous distributed robotic garden as part of the undergraduate project course 6.084/086 taught at MIT during Fall 2008. The project was framed as addressing a grand challenge: to create a robotic gardening system. Solving the grand challenge required designing and programming robots to interact effectively and autonomously with the real world. We developed the class hardware infrastructure consisting of six robots with an iCreate base and a 4DOF arm with eye-in-hand configuration and an optional watering system and four cherry tomato plants, each with its own local sensing and computation packaged in an embedded computer. The robots an plants were networked together as a mesh network. The plants have the ability to monitor their soil humidity and issue watering requests. They also have the ability to database the location and color-level of the tomatoes. The robots have the ability to visit a specific plant to deliver water or to locate and grasp a tomato. Users have the ability to request tomatoes for salad. In response to user requests, the system decides which specific plants have the ripest tomatoes and assign parallel harvesting tasks to robots.