Tagalong robots will comply with you to be taught the place you’re going

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When Amazon unveiled its home robot Astro earlier this year, it first showed the robot that follows a person. It’s a simple idea that has sparked people’s imaginations with depictions in science fiction like R2-D2 and BB-8 from Star Wars and in real life with research projects like DARPA’s robotic mule.

Follower robots have been tapped for pointless activities like carrying a single bottle of water, but robots can also move tools in a warehouse or freshly picked fruit from an orchard to a packing station. Artificially intelligent machines that are trained to follow people or other machines can change the way we think about everyday objects such as hand luggage or golf clubs. Now the manufacturers of follower robots want to coordinate the movement around the modern workplace.

Follower robots have been in development since the late 1990s, starting on the ground and extending underwater and into the sky. Original forms relied on tracking the location of a tag in a person’s pocket, but advances in deep learning and computer vision now allow AI to navigate by “seeing” the world through cameras and other sensors.

In agricultural fields, Burro offers something like an autonomously driving pallet on the body of a four-wheeled ATV that can move freely between the rows of California orchards.

To train a burro robot, simply press a follow button and go; at the end of the path press the button again. With up to 20 cameras, computer vision and GPS, Burro follows you and remembers the route. It can then transport goods without outside help and tell other burro robots the route.

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A burro weighs up to 500 pounds and can hold up to 1,000 pounds. Table grape growers use burros to bring fruit from workers in vineyards to people who pack the goods in clam shells before loading them onto trucks for transport to grocery stores.

After three years of testing, around 100 Burro devices are currently in use in vineyards in Southern California. The company hopes to quadruple that number with $ 10 million in new funding that closed in the fall.

Burro CEO Charlie Andersen says the robots have logged nearly 50,000 hours in blueberry, blackberry, raspberry and grape fields, as well as nurseries, over the past five years.

Some of the new funding will be used to develop software to meet the technical challenge of managing hundreds of rovers on site. Burro is also working on integrating technology from Bloomfield Robotics, which uses computer vision and AI to predict grape yields and monitor crops for disease or fungus. In the long term, Burro wants to offer a platform to coordinate predictive AI and moving machines for fruit and nut plantations and vineyards.

In addition to integrating computer vision, Burro is testing attaching robotic arms to its pallets to cut grapes from vines so a robot can harvest, prune and defoliate vineyards. “We grab and cut, but not cut after grab, which is immensely complex and we don’t think will be practical in commercial settings in the near future,” says Andersen.

Fruit and nut farmers are increasingly integrating computer vision into their work. Tastry, for example, uses artificial intelligence to look for combinations of grapes that can mask smoky flavors in forest fire-ravaged vineyards that can spoil a harvest.

Walt Duflock helps operate a 10,000 acre farm in Monterey County, California for cattle, table grapes and other crops. He is also VP of Innovation at the Western Growers Association, a consortium of farmers that represents half of the fruit, vegetable and nut growing businesses in the United States.

Duflock first met the founders of Burro while working as a mentor for the Thrive Agriculture Startup Accelerator. He believes that automation is necessary in order to counteract the labor shortage in agriculture, especially during harvesting. He believes robots like Burro can eliminate up to 20 percent of the workforce on farms over time.

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