By all accounts, tree planting should be at the top of the list for jobs to be taken over by machines.
Every summer, hordes of young Canadian misfits head to the West Coast to spend hours in the hot sun, bent over with their hands in the dirt, planting row after row of seedlings for pennies. It's supposed to build character or something—I don't know, I've never done it—but it sounds like it totally sucks, at least most of the time.
So in 2015, when robots are assembling pizzas even though I can't toast bread properly on most mornings, why aren't robots out there planting trees? The need for replanting has never been more urgent, as Earth's forests die. As it turns out, when a physical task is already incredibly demanding for humans, it's doubly so for robots.
Case in point: Two university students at the University of Victoria have developed a prototype pneumatic tree planter called the TreeRover. The robot has been tested at the University of British Columbia's research forest, and it does pretty well on flat terrain. But when I called up Nick Birch, one of TreeRover's designers, he told me that rough ground (i.e. the real world) is a thorny issue.
"One of the main reasons we still use humans has to do with the terrain navigation," Birch said. "Especially with the mountains, there's a lot of steep slopes, and a lot of these sites that have been recently logged leave a lot of stumps. Planters have to navigate around that, and it's quite difficult to program a robot to do that."
Locomotion is a persistent issue for robots, and not just the tree planting kind. Advanced robots like MIT's Cheetah and Boston Dynamics' humanoid Atlas are able to explore the outdoors, but they're still firmly in the experimental stage. Most of the time, when faced with even minor obstacles, robots just fall over.
Erik Brinkman, special projects coordinator for Brinkman & Associates Reforestation Ltd, which plants trees all over Canada every summer, told me that tree planting also requires on the spot judgement with regards to where to plant—something that's difficult for robots. He told me he's personally planted more than one million trees over his lifetime, so he knows his shit.
"You might need to plant on the high spot, the low spot, the dry spot, the spot next to an obstacle to maintain heat in the winter and coolness in the summer," Brinkman said. "Depending on your region, and your site, there's a huge spectrum of specs."
Brinkman said his company has looked into using drones to deliver tree seeds aerially, another popular proposal for automating tree planting. But even with drones, there are too many variables to account for. Aerially deployed seeds have a notoriously low uptake rate, and mitigating this is one of the core focuses for BioCarbon Engineering, a drone planting company led by a former NASA engineer.
Even so, saying "never" is the easiest way to be proven wrong eventually, and Brinkman is aware of this. One day, he says, the robots will come for the tree planters, and he will welcome it.