Rise of the robot gardeners

Rise of the robot gardeners
    Imagine life a decade or so in the future. You arrive home from work on your hoverboard, walk out into the garden and sit down. 

You pour yourself a drink, look out over your pristine, freshly-mown lawn and well-tended flowerbeds and breathe a sigh of satisfaction – because it was all accomplished without you having to lift a finger.

And no, it's not because you're suddenly rich enough to employ your own gardener – it's because it's all been carried out by a robot.

Sound like science-fiction? If you're a fan of I, Robot or Terminator, you might be a bit wary of using a robot to do the gardening. One minute you could be watching it mow the lawn, the next you might be running for dear life.

But the field of robotics is progressing by leaps and bounds and soon robots could be able to perform all manner of domestic tasks currently carried out by humans.

Japanese developers have already invented a seal-shaped robot, named Paro, that can act as a companion to elderly people suffering from dementia. 

And in America, Aethon's Tug bot has been built to move hospital trolleys around. These robots can be operated using a smartphone app and are already used in around 150 hospitals. And they won't bump into you, because they have built-in collision avoidance systems.

Gardening can be a fairly labour-intensive activity – as anyone with a big garden knows – so it's surely only a matter of time before someone invents a robot gardener?

Well, in some respects, the future is already here. Robot lawnmowers exist and MowDirect stocks a range of models.

The Robomow RC302 Automatic Robot Lawn Mower mulches cut grass to avoid the need for collection, while an on-board sensor stops it from mowing in damp conditions.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an ambitious project is underway to create a fully-automated gardening system.  

Their Distributed Robotic Garden project, which uses sensors and autonomous robots, could one day be used to develop farms that do not require any human labourers.

Sophisticated technology already exists to make hydroponics gardening easier – sensors monitor nutrients, soil temperature and other variables and coordinate actions using cloud computing, meaning you can leave your plants without asking a neighbour to look after them.

If you're already looking forward to pre-ordering your gardening robot and putting your feet up, you could be in for a long wait, however.

Getting a robot to mow the lawn is one thing – getting one to tend your azaleas, trim the hedge and weed your vegetable patch is quite another.

Vast amounts of money have been spent trying to develop robots that mimic human movements but such projects have encountered only limited success.

As the Economist recently pointed out, getting robots to do things people find difficult is easy – but getting them to do things people find easy, like walking, is extremely hard. 

And besides, would you even want to have a robot do the gardening? As Mrs Doyle found out in Father Ted when she was given an automated tea-maker, having a machine to do the thing you love can take all the pleasure out of it.

Gardening is fun, relaxing and can help keep you fit – why would you want a robot to take over your hobby? 

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