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Will this fruit-picking robot transform agriculture? | Artificial intelligence (AI)

Robots can do a lot. They build cars in factories. They sort goods in Amazon warehouses. Robotic dogs can, allegedly and a little creepily, make us safer by patrolling our streets. But there are some things robots still cannot do – things that sound quite basic in comparison. Like picking an apple from a tree.

“It’s a simple thing” for humans, says robotics researcher Joe Davidson. “You and I, we could close our eyes, reach into the tree. We could feel around, touch it, and say ‘hey, that’s an apple and the stem’s up here’. Pull, twist. We could do all that without even looking.”

Creating a robotic implement that can simply pick an apple and drop it into a bin without damaging it is a multimillion-dollar effort that has been decades in the making. Teams around the world have tried various approaches. Some have developed vacuum systems to suck fruit off trees. Davidson and his colleagues turned to the human hand for inspiration. They began their efforts by observing professional fruit pickers, and are now working to replicate their skilled movements with robotic fingers.

Their work could help to transform agriculture, turning fruit-picking – a backbreaking, time-consuming human task – into one that’s speedy and easier on farm workers.

These efforts have gained impetus recently as researchers point to the worsening conditions for farm workers amid the climate crisis, including extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and also a shortage of workers in the wake of the pandemic. The technology could lead to better working conditions and worker safety. But that outcome depends on how robots are deployed in fields, farm workers’ organizations say.

While robotic tools for agriculture have made big strides in recent years, those AI-based tools are mostly used for weeding, monitoring soil moisture and other field conditions, or for planting soybeans using remote-controlled tractors. “But when it actually comes to doing physical work like pruning trees or picking fruit, that’s still the realm of people today,” Davidson says.

Teaching robots to perform these tasks requires modernized versions of both the orchard and the apple.

Traditional orchards, with irregularly shaped trees and giant canopies, are too much of a challenge for algorithms to parse and process. Shifting sunbeams, fog and clouds add to computer vision’s challenges. Tangled, tall old trees are problematic even to human pickers, who end up spending much of their time hauling and positioning ladders, not picking fruit.

Now, many growers have transitioned to orchards where trees grow flat against trellises, their trunks and branches at right angles to create a “wall of fruit”, says Scott Jacky, owner of Red Roof Consulting, a group that helps optimize farm technologies. The thinner canopy also lets more sunlight in, encouraging fruits to form.

Since the 1990s, breeders have been working to develop apple varieties more resistant to sunburn – a side-effect of those sparser canopies – and less prone to bruising when dropped into bins. All these changes to the trees and the apples themselves make the job easier for robots (and for humans).

In orchards with trellised trees, human fruit pickers can cruise through rows of trees in pairs on slowly rolling platforms. One person crouches to reach low-hanging fruit, the other reaches for the higher branches. Professionals working this way take about two seconds to pick one apple.

The robot in Davidson’s lab, which is essentially a giant arm mounted on a rolling platform, takes about five seconds to make its moves. At the click of a key, the robotic arm reaches up for the fruit – actually a plastic apple made for testing purposes – with its three-fingered palm. Its fingers are covered in cushiony silicone “skin”, which conceals individual motors wired to tendons that drive its fingers. Thirty sensors under each fingertip track the pressure, speed, angle and other aspects of its grasp to help the robot complete its task.

Another keystroke and the fingers tighten, then twist, and the apple – successfully picked – rests in the robot’s palm.

The fruit-picking robot has picked an apple successfully about half of the 500 or so times it has tried so far. Still, the robotic arm has cracked some problems that posed hurdles to automation. For instance, it can avoid damaging both fruit and tree limbs in the harvesting process. Rapid improvements in computing make Davidson and others hopeful the robots will work on farms within the next five to 10 years.

The US government is placing significant bets on this technology. Last year alone, federal funding agencies granted $20m to support the AgAID institute, a new group that supports several researchers, including Davidson, in efforts to develop artificial intelligence-backed tools for agriculture.

Proponents of harvest automation say there will still be jobs for people, such as training and operating the robots. “There are going to be plenty of tasks where the robotic instruments and digital devices will necessarily have to work with humans,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, professor at Washington State University and director of the AgAID institute. “That’s going to actually empower humans because it gives them new skillsets.”

For now, it’s unclear to many farm workers how the robots will affect their livelihood. “If they’re used properly, they can actually be a support system for workers and improve standards at work,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, a Latinx farm workers’ organization in Oregon.

But so far, Lopez and others say they have not been involved in conversations about the fruit-picking robots. “Historically, farm workers have not been placed at the center of any of these conversations,” they say. Across various industries, including agriculture, waves of automation have led to job losses and a devaluing of human work. Often in the wake of such shifts, “what happens to low-wage workers is that people lose their jobs,” Lopez says.

The emergence of robotic farm workers could even be an opportunity for humans to engage in different – and far less strenuous – work than pruning or harvesting, says Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “There’s a lot of folks in rural communities who, even if they would like to, physically cannot do these jobs,” she says.

“When you take the physical aspect out, these tasks become more accessible to older workers or those less physically capable of lugging ladders and things. It enables more people to be drawn into this work.”

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Culture

Top 10 Florida Cities Dominate The Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

Top 10 Florida Cities And Business Startup Landscape In The U.S.

The Voice Of EU | Florida emerges as a hub for entrepreneurial endeavors, with its vibrant business landscape and conducive environment for startups. Renowned for its low corporate tax rates and a high concentration of investors, the Sunshine State beckons aspiring entrepreneurs seeking fertile grounds to launch and grow their businesses.

In a recent report by WalletHub, Florida cities dominate the list of the top 10 best destinations for business startups, showcasing their resilience and economic vitality amidst challenging times.

From Orlando’s thriving market to Miami’s dynamic ecosystem, each city offers unique advantages and opportunities for entrepreneurial success. Let’s delve into the chronologically listed cities that exemplify Florida’s prominence in the business startup arena.

1. Orlando Leads the Way: Orlando emerges as the most attractive market in the U.S. for business startups, with a remarkable surge in small business establishments. WalletHub’s latest report highlights Orlando’s robust ecosystem, fostering the survival and growth of startups, buoyed by a high concentration of investors per capita.

2. Tampa Takes Second Place: Securing the second spot among large cities for business startups, Tampa boasts a favorable business environment attributed to its low corporate tax rates. The city’s ample investor presence further fortifies startups, providing essential resources for navigating the initial years of business operations.

3. Charlotte’s Diverse Industries: Claiming the third position, Charlotte stands out for its diverse industrial landscape and exceptionally low corporate taxes, enticing companies to reinvest capital. This conducive environment propels entrepreneurial endeavors, contributing to sustained economic growth.

4. Jacksonville’s Rising Profile: Jacksonville emerges as a promising destination for startups, bolstered by its favorable business climate. The city’s strategic positioning fosters entrepreneurial ventures, attracting aspiring business owners seeking growth opportunities.

5. Miami’s Entrepreneurial Hub: Miami solidifies its position as a thriving entrepreneurial hub, attracting businesses with its dynamic ecosystem and strategic location. The city’s vibrant startup culture and supportive infrastructure make it an appealing destination for ventures of all sizes.

6. Atlanta’s Economic Momentum: Atlanta’s ascent in the business startup landscape underscores its economic momentum and favorable business conditions. The city’s strategic advantages and conducive policies provide a fertile ground for entrepreneurial ventures to flourish.

7. Fort Worth’s Business-Friendly Environment: Fort Worth emerges as a prime destination for startups, offering a business-friendly environment characterized by low corporate taxes. The city’s supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives facilitate the growth and success of new ventures.

8. Austin’s Innovation Hub: Austin cements its status as an innovation hub, attracting startups with its vibrant entrepreneurial community and progressive policies. The city’s robust infrastructure and access to capital foster a conducive environment for business growth and innovation.

9. Durham’s Emerging Entrepreneurship Scene: Durham’s burgeoning entrepreneurship scene positions it as a promising destination for startups, fueled by its supportive ecosystem and strategic initiatives. The city’s collaborative culture and access to resources contribute to the success of new ventures.

10. St. Petersburg’s Thriving Business Community: St. Petersburg rounds off the top 10 with its thriving business community and supportive ecosystem for startups. The city’s strategic advantages and favorable business climate make it an attractive destination for entrepreneurial endeavors.

Despite unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Great Resignation, and high inflation, these top Florida cities remain resilient and well-equipped to overcome obstacles, offering promising opportunities for business owners and entrepreneurs alike.


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European Startup Ecosystems Awash With Gulf Investment – Here Are Some Of The Top Investors

European Startup Ecosystem Getting Flooded With Gulf Investments

The Voice Of EU | In recent years, European entrepreneurs seeking capital infusion have widened their horizons beyond the traditional American investors, increasingly turning their gaze towards the lucrative investment landscape of the Gulf region. With substantial capital reservoirs nestled within sovereign wealth funds and corporate venture capital entities, Gulf nations have emerged as compelling investors for European startups and scaleups.

According to comprehensive data from Dealroom, the influx of investment from Gulf countries into European startups soared to a staggering $3 billion in 2023, marking a remarkable 5x surge from the $627 million recorded in 2018.

This substantial injection of capital, accounting for approximately 5% of the total funding raised in the region, underscores the growing prominence of Gulf investors in European markets.

Particularly noteworthy is the significant support extended to growth-stage companies, with over two-thirds of Gulf investments in 2023 being directed towards funding rounds exceeding $100 million. This influx of capital provides a welcome boost to European companies grappling with the challenge of securing well-capitalized investors locally.

Delving deeper into the landscape, Sifted has identified the most active Gulf investors in European startups over the past two years.

Leading the pack is Aramco Ventures, headquartered in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Bolstered by a substantial commitment, Aramco Ventures boasts a $1.5 billion sustainability fund, alongside an additional $4 billion allocated to its venture capital arm, positioning it as a formidable player with a total investment capacity of $7 billion by 2027. With a notable presence in 17 funding rounds, Aramco Ventures has strategically invested in ventures such as Carbon Clean Solutions and ANYbotics, aligning with its focus on businesses that offer strategic value.

Following closely is Mubadala Capital, headquartered in Abu Dhabi, UAE, with an impressive tally of 13 investments in European startups over the past two years. Backed by the sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company, Mubadala Capital’s diverse investment portfolio spans private equity, venture capital, and alternative solutions. Notable investments include Klarna, TIER, and Juni, reflecting its global investment strategy across various sectors.

Ventura Capital, based in Dubai, UAE, secured its position as a key player with nine investments in European startups. With a presence in Dubai, London, and Tokyo, Ventura Capital boasts an international network of limited partners and a sector-agnostic investment approach, contributing to its noteworthy investments in companies such as Coursera and Spotify.

Qatar Investment Authority, headquartered in Doha, Qatar, has made significant inroads into the European startup ecosystem with six notable investments. As the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar, QIA’s diversified portfolio spans private and public equity, infrastructure, and real estate, with strategic investments in tech startups across healthcare, consumer, and industrial sectors.

MetaVision Dubai, a newcomer to the scene, has swiftly garnered attention with six investments in European startups. Focusing on seed to Series A startups in the metaverse and Web3 space, MetaVision raised an undisclosed fund in 2022, affirming its commitment to emerging technologies and innovative ventures.

Investcorp, headquartered in Manama, Bahrain, has solidified its presence with six investments in European startups. With a focus on mid-sized B2B businesses, Investcorp’s diverse investment strategies encompass private equity, real estate, infrastructure, and credit management, contributing to its notable investments in companies such as Terra Quantum and TruKKer.

Chimera Capital, based in Abu Dhabi, UAE, rounds off the list with four strategic investments in European startups. As part of a prominent business conglomerate, Chimera Capital leverages its global reach and sector-agnostic approach to drive investments in ventures such as CMR Surgical and Neat Burger.

In conclusion, the burgeoning influx of capital from Gulf investors into European startups underscores the region’s growing appeal as a vibrant hub for innovation and entrepreneurship. With key players such as Aramco Ventures, Mubadala Capital, and Ventura Capital leading the charge, European startups are poised to benefit from the strategic investments and partnerships forged with Gulf investors, propelling them towards sustained growth and success in the global market landscape.


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China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending ‘Taikonauts’ To The Moon From 2030 Onwards

China Reveals Lunar Mission

The Voice Of EU | In a bold stride towards lunar exploration, the Chinese Space Agency has unveiled its ambitious plans for a moon landing set to unfold in the 2030s. While exact timelines remain uncertain, this endeavor signals a potential resurgence of the historic space race reminiscent of the 1960s rivalry between the United States and the USSR.

China’s recent strides in lunar exploration include the deployment of three devices on the moon’s surface, coupled with the successful launch of the Queqiao-2 satellite. This satellite serves as a crucial communication link, bolstering connectivity between Earth and forthcoming missions to the moon’s far side and south pole.

Unlike the secretive approach of the Soviet Union in the past, China’s strategy leans towards transparency, albeit with a hint of mystery surrounding the finer details. Recent revelations showcase the naming and models of lunar spacecraft, steeped in cultural significance. The Mengzhou, translating to “dream ship,” will ferry three astronauts to and from the moon, while the Lanyue, meaning “embrace the moon,” will descend to the lunar surface.

Drawing inspiration from both Russian and American precedents, China’s lunar endeavor presents a novel approach. Unlike its predecessors, China will employ separate launches for the manned module and lunar lander due to the absence of colossal space shuttles. This modular approach bears semblance to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, reflecting a contemporary adaptation of past achievements.

Upon reaching lunar orbit, astronauts, known as “taikonauts” in Chinese, will rendezvous with the lunar lander, reminiscent of the Apollo program’s maneuvers. However, distinct engineering choices mark China’s departure from traditional lunar landing methods.

The Chinese lunar lander, while reminiscent of the Apollo Lunar Module, introduces novel features such as a single set of engines and potential reusability and advance technology. Unlike past missions where lunar modules were discarded, China’s design hints at the possibility of refueling and reuse, opening avenues for sustained lunar exploration.

China Reveals Lunar Mission: Sending 'Taikonauts' To The Moon From 2030 Onwards
A re-creation of the two Chinese spacecraft that will put ‘taikonauts’ on the moon.CSM

Despite these advancements, experts have flagged potential weaknesses, particularly regarding engine protection during landing. Nevertheless, China’s lunar aspirations remain steadfast, with plans for extensive testing and site selection underway.

Beyond planting flags and collecting rocks, China envisions establishing a permanent lunar base, the International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), ushering in a new era of international collaboration in space exploration.

While the Artemis agreements spearheaded by NASA have garnered global support, China’s lunar ambitions stand as a formidable contender in shaping the future of space exploration. In conclusion, China’s unveiling of its lunar ambitions not only marks a significant milestone in space exploration but also sets the stage for a new chapter in the ongoing saga of humanity’s quest for the cosmos. As nations vie for supremacy in space, collaboration and innovation emerge as the cornerstones of future lunar endeavors.


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