Saturday, April 26, 2014

Robots that Milk Cows

"Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves.
Desperate for reliable labor and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand.

Scores of the machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy — and manure-averse — generation.

“We’re used to computers and stuff, and it’s more in line with that,” said Mike Borden, 29, a seventh-generation dairyman, whose farm upgraded to robots, as others did, when disco-era milking parlors — the big, mechanized turntables that farmers use to milk many cows at once — started showing their age.

“And,” Mr. Borden added, “it’s a lot more fun than doing manual labor.”

The view is improved as well. “Most milking parlors, you see, you really only see the back end of the cow,” Mr. Borden’s father, Tom, said. “I don’t see that as building up much of a relationship.”
Tom Borden, owner of O. A. Borden, said machines like the Astronaut A4 robotic milking system gave him more time to care for the cattle. Credit Nathaniel Brooks for The New York
The cows seem to like it, too.

Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.

With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.

The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten, and even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat.

“The animals just walk through,” said Jay Skellie, a dairyman from Salem, N.Y., after watching a demonstration. “I think we’ve got to look real hard at robots.”

Many of those running small farms said the choice of a computerized milker came down to a bigger question: whether to upgrade or just give up.

“Either we were going to get out, we were going to get bigger, or we were going to try something different,” said the elder Mr. Borden, 59, whose family has been working a patch of ground about 30 miles northeast of Albany since 1837. “And this was something a little different.”    


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Robot Comedian Doing Stand-Up!

If this robot has a day job, maybe he shouldn't give it up just yet. What do you think?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Talking and Writing about Robot Creation Underscores Its Connection to Life, Job, and Literacy Learning

GUEST BLOGGER: Dr. Rose Reissman

Building a Robot - Building Life, Job, and Literacy Skills

Student teams engaged in robot building can re-direct their joyous peer collaboration enthusiasm to reflecting in writing and peer conversation on the many life, job and personal capacities that robotics develops. By providing a little time for students to explicitly express how they can connect robotics to general workplace team skills and personal leadership/collaboration styles, they get an opportunity to focus on robot building as a training exercise for adult workplace and teaming skills. This enhances the value of Robotics, and other STEM activities, as the seed for adult problem solving and social living skills.

One class of 6th grade students doing a robot building project led by technology educators Angelo Carideo and David Liotta at IS 62, Ditmas (a Brooklyn middle school) took a written survey and then engaged in an important conversation about the life lessons they learned through robot building. Here are some of the high points:


They described frustration that can accompany the group robot building experience: the search for missing pieces necessary to complete their robots - individual team members who try to dominate the group – the problem of some students exclusively focusing on programming and not participating in the building - and others who just sat by. Then they connected this same frustration with the frustration they experience with school or at home. Some said their frustration matched their parents’ frustration with co-workers who “goofed off.” Some students did oral history interviews with parents to find out the extent to which their work and social lives rely on teaming.

Frustrations can boil over. One student described how he got to the point of thinking “about breaking the robot” because its color sensor did not function. Sometimes kit pieces didn’t fit. Several students described intense frustrations when their robot failed to perform. Getting the robot’s program to result in making a full turn was a task that pushed them to the limit.Prompted, students connected “missing pieces” in robot building to other instances of missing pieces in life. Students in search of birth parents saw this as a “missing pieces” investigation to find life truths that eluded them.


How had they “fixed” issues or problems to successfully build a functioning robot? Those groups who were frustrated by the loss of crucial kit pieces came up with the idea of organizing and inventorying pieces. This allowed them to keep track of the pieces more effectively. One student noted that successful programming required reviewing all the programming possibilities. She undertook that task with another team member to find a series of commands that would work for their robot. One student became the scheduler/organizer who assigned turns at building or programming. Another girl took responsibility for faulty programming and finally got it right. She was “really happy” when it worked. Another team used the manual to get its robot wiring right. Some teams simply went forward without a pivotal ball and a front bumper, revamping their design to take advantage of parts that were available.

Actual Applications to a real life, career or job challenge? Inventorying items turned out to be a job that one student’s uncle had at a local 99 cent store. Another student recalled a hardware store clerk who had a written inventory of screw types available with a back order list. Scheduling was familiar to students because they worked in a dean’s or principal’s office. They mentioned a scheduled line-up for access to computers in the library. Students mentioned their own multitasking parents, teachers, and coaches who got tasks done on time, whether or not others helped. Some felt that this ability was necessary in real life to success.

They reflected on what, in real life, got done, but not exactly how it was planned or expected? This question took a while getting a response. A student artist noted that a mural he worked on in another school came out great, but was not really the design he set out to do. Students detailed how family meals went off without required silverware or china plates and sufficient dish ingredients. Ultimately most students joyously shared their ultimate success in programming the robots successfully in spite of frustrations.

Accomplishments Accented

We basically put in a code, uploaded it to the robot, and the robot did what we told it to do” said one group. Some students basked in their robot’s ability to sense colors. One student was excited by the fact that this small robot had the capacity to react faster than a human. Some students were excited by teamwork: “All of us worked together, we weren’t a team; we were one single person working on a project.” One student found “using my hands to put each piece of the robot in place” was exciting. Another cited the “thrill of creating movements that seemed to come to life . . . I got to be in complete control of something… my robot… the robot’s name was Toby…I had to be careful with Toby because he was very fragile… without my group [he] would never have been created… that’s the best feeling in the world.”

From concept to building to programming, robotics parallels life’s journey of personal, career, and citizen goals. To produce and reflect on a shared effort is a goal that teachers, parents, entrepreneurs, politicians, and leaders share. Robot building models a life process that involves following directions and working together. Talking and writing about it concretizes robot building by underscoring its life lessons.


Dr. Rose Reissman,

Director of the Writing Institute

Dr. Reissman designed the survey and facilitated the literacy and life lessons reflections described in this piece