The University of Illinois' Coordinated Science Laboratory team has accelerated work on the TerreSentia robot, a nimble and semi-autonomous machine that can provide the same attention to detail as human labor.
“Essentially, with the COVID-19 crisis, two things happened. One is the urgent need to keep healthcare workers safe from sick patients,” Girish Chowdhary, the faculty member leading the research, said. “The second, medium-term need is enabling more diversity in our food systems to accommodate social distancing and disrupted food chains. In some places, fruit is rotting on farms because they're not able to get people to do the work. And Illinois, while being a top agricultural state, still has very limited fruit and vegetable growing capacity”
The robot can perform tasks both in the field or in the hospital. The team created a prototype that has already proved able to pick cherry tomatoes and blueberries and the robots are expected to be ready for farm work next year.
The robot can also aid farms in the same way it is aiding hospitals, by using UV light to disinfect rooms quickly. Researchers are also working on getting robots to wipe down rooms themselves.
“The technology that works is the one that scales. It doesn't have to be optimal or perfect,” Chowdhary said. “Sometimes we forget this as scientists; we focus on the perfect solution. Because of the urgent need, we now have to focus on scaling up.”