The fourth episode of OPB’s video series on food and food systems in the Pacific Northwest, “Superabundant,” explores the ways robots and automation affect the world of food.
A robotic dairy farm might sound like an idea straight out of a science fiction novel to some, but for Darleen Sichley, it’s actually old news.
“I think most people have that picture in their mind of, you know, you’re sitting down on a milking stool to milk your cow,” she said. Sichley is a third-generation dairy farmer. Her Silverton farm, Abiqua Acres, is completely family-owned and operated.
“We started with robotics in 2017 and it’s been a great transition,” she said.
Tech and food have gone together since our ancient ancestors made stone hand axes, and technological developments have been fundamental to the project of feeding humanity since the agricultural revolution millennia ago. Increasingly, automated systems — you might call them robots — are part of that equation.
From picking fruit, serving food, and milking cows to doing dishes at a restaurant, robots help fewer people do more, all while making work safer for humans.
Robots take high-tech milking to the next level
Most dairy farming is done with the use of milking units. A person attaches the unit to the cow’s teats and the milk goes through a pipeline and into a tank.
At Abiqua Acres, robots automate a few of these steps and eliminate others. Essentially, the cows can walk in at their own leisure and be milked automatically. This gives the Sichley family — and the cows themselves — more flexibility.
“As the cow enters the milking stall, she’s IDed by that RFID tag in her ear, it has her information. The system has her information, so it knows how much milk she’s expected to give,” Sichley explained. “It has a map of her udder, where her teats should be. So it starts the process of cleaning her teats first, and then it attaches the milking units.”
The entire process — which also involves feeding the cow and disinfection — takes about seven minutes. The machine stores information about the cow’s milking routine that allows Sichley to instantly check on her cows from her cell phone or computer.
A generation ago, before automation, this process could take two and a half to three hours each morning and night.
“And so now we have a lot more flexibility in our day and what we can do. We still have your daily chores, but it is lots more flexible with a young family,” Sichley said.
She doesn’t ever see robots taking over the human element of dairy farming. “You still have to be hands-on, you know, they’re still living creatures and you can’t just put in robotics and walk away,” she said.
“Part of our job as dairy farmers is to love on them,” Sichley said. “They’re our ladies, they’re our coworkers and that’s part of our job.”
Robots bring efficiency, but not the human touch
“Agriculture is one of the really labor-intensive and really risky and, in some cases, dangerous operations for us to be involved in,” said Manoj Karkee, associate professor of biological systems engineering at Washington State University.
Beyond milking cows, robots help with pest control at vineyards and orchards, picking fruit in the hot sun and inspecting grain. They allow people to produce more food, more safely.
The U.S. produces almost three times as much food, with only a quarter of the human labor, as it did 60 years ago, and the key has been technology.
But as robots learn more human-like skills, there are still gaps in what they can achieve. For now, for example, they lack the delicate touch needed to pick fruit in some orchards. Existing picking robots can navigate orchards and find fruit on their own.
“But there’s a very specific way professional pickers pick fruit. They do it in such a way it minimizes the damage and make sure it can store and go to the grocery shelf,” said Joe Davidson, assistant professor of robotics at Oregon State University.
In those orchards, robots still have a lot to learn, and researchers are still trying to figure out how to teach them, Davidson said. “How can we train robots to use their hands to pick fruit like people do?”
Service with a digital smile
As robots learn more human-like skills, they’re also beginning to work at the very end of the cycle that takes food from fields to plates. At the Top Burmese Bistro Royale in Beaverton, robots are not producing the food. Instead, they’re helping to serve it.
“Our robots carry from point A to point B, and that’s a start for now,” said Kalvin Myint, the owner of the Bistro Royale.
The bots, with their small yet surprisingly expressive digital smiles, are a cute and fun addition to the dining experience.
Myint said the robots traveled about 60 miles inside the restaurant last month.
“That’s 60 miles that our servers didn’t have to just walk around with all the different heavy dishes,” he said. “And instead they focus on doing other things that they enjoy: going from table to table, greeting the customers and talking about food.
“It has a camera that actually reads all the different QR codes on the ceiling and then the LIDAR that uses light to detect objects around it for collision avoidance,” Myint said. “In a nutshell, it knows where it is and it knows where it needs to go.”
And, in a nutshell, that’s the point of robots and automation every step along the way: teaching machines to know what to do, where to go, and how to make human lives easier — so we can spend less time making food and more time eating it.