– All Hail the Robotic Farmers and Pilots of the Future (Wired, May 1, 2012):
NEW YORK — Fighter pilot Mary “Missy” Cummings saw it coming while landing her F/A-18 supersonic jet on a Navy aircraft carrier — the world-changing disruption barreling toward the present.
Instead of landing the multi-million-dollar machine on the small deck of the ship herself in the 1990s, a computer accomplished the tricky feat for her.
“Here the computer was taking off better than I could, landing itself better than I could and doing the mission better than I ever could,” Cummings said Tuesday during the Wired Disruptive by Design business conference. “It was really humiliating. That was what used to make me better than everyone else.”
Eventually Cummings took a step back, told herself the heyday of fighter pilots was over and joined the robots. She’s now an aeronautics professor at MIT working to tackle the monotonous work of flying, farming and other industries with autonomous drones.
Robo-Pilots on the Rise
Cummings said the automated take-offs and landings by both military and civilian aircraft are now really good. So good that “it’s technically possible,” she said, for a commercial flight to take off, fly and land without the input of a human pilot.
Yet plenty of problems exist for robots to solve on runways and flight decks.
One is managing the clutter of an aircraft carrier deck, especially the mixing of human and robotic pilots. As it is now, many aircraft carrier deck managers use models on a table to keep track of equipment and people. “It’s almost like a fun five-year-old game,” Cummings said.
To that end Cummings is helping develop a computer-powered, motion-capture camera system to help busy deck managers smooth the process. She thinks carriers and commercial airports will essentially become free of human meddling.
“Pilots are getting bored, falling asleep, texting and so on. It’s a problem not because they’re unprofessional, it’s that we’re humans working with highly automated systems,” she said. “[Unmanned aerial vehicles] will arrive faster than we can realize.”
She said it won’t happen in the United States first because of the regulatory hurdles, but “once we get shamed, we’ll jump into the game,” she said.
For now robots and humans seem to perform better as a team. “Humans are doing a pretty good job, but they do it even better with the assistance of algorithms,” she said. “This research … is really showing the power of how, when algorithms work with humans, the whole system performs better.”
Welcome Your Robot Farmer Overlords
Aside from automating aircraft management, Cummings is also lending a robotic hand to farmers.
Farming is steeped in the weeks-long work of tilling, planting, watering, fumigating and harvesting, she says — tasks that are often tough to convince humans to do for low wages.
“It’s not nearly as sexy as aircraft carriers, but we have a real problem in this country. We just don’t have the manpower to do the farming that we need,” Cummings said.
Cummings comes from a farming family and said that “farmers are actually very conservative and not a crowd that lends itself to robots,” but eventually she thinks that they will. “They can’t get enough people to man the fields,” she said.
Tractors of today are crammed with state-of-the-art entertainment systems. “Why is that?” Cummings asked the audience. “It’s because it’s really boring. Let’s turn this over to the robot so that person can do something else.”
Cummings eventually showed a proprietary video supplied by John Deere of two driverless tractors spraying pesticides on a grove. Other experimental farms have robotic soil tillers and pilot-less helicopters dusting crops.
When Wired editor-in-chief and drone aficionado Chris Anderson asked when we might see these machines out in the fields, Cummings said “about 1 to 3 years.”
“We’re going to see UAVs in our everyday life to support the food we [eat]. We’re going to see this more and more in our own backyards,” she said. “The technology is pretty much ready to go. It’s just making connection to the business model. We’re on the cusp of that”