Sunday, April 05, 2015

Drought & desertification: Robots can help

A NYTimes article published April 2nd, Mapping the Spread of Drought Across the U.S., leads off with an animated map supplied by the National Drought Mitigation Center, which shows the spread of drought conditions across the contiguous 48 states since late fall, 2014.

From that article: “Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 37 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of March 31, 2015.”

There are two major ways in which robots can help with the effects of climate change, whether permanent or cyclical, upon food production.

Most immediately, robots can operate indoor production facilities using artificial light to produce high value, quickly maturing crops requiring moist environments. To operate most efficiently, that artificial light would be predominantly red and blue, since green light is mostly reflected away by plants, which is why they appear green to us. This might prove a stressful environment for human workers, but robots won't care.

The other way in which robots can help is in dry fields under the hot sun. This can be as simple as reflective umbrellas, nets, or horizontal shutters that shade the ground from the mid-day sun, but uncover it again in the late afternoon to allow cooling radiation into the night sky. Robots could also maintain drip-irrigation systems or make daily rounds to inject water into the soil near root crowns.

In principle, they could also perform planting, weeding, pest control, pruning, harvesting, and deal with plant materials left behind after harvest, and do it all working a mixture of annuals between and around standing perennials, although much of the technology needed for such a scenario remains to be developed.

On the other hand, given that level of utility, much becomes possible that currently is not. The weight of machinery can be kept entirely off of productive soil, rendering it more capable of holding water. Mulch can be applied at any time. When expected precipitation fails to materialize, plants can be pruned to reduce their leaf area and the amount of water they require. Windbreaks can be installed surrounding relatively small patches of land, in a manner not conducive to working them using tractors and conventional implements, but affording much better protection from drying winds as well as providing a secondary crop of woody fiber and habitat for wildlife. If planted in low berms, those windbreaks would also help to keep what moisture there is in the fields and eliminate water erosion.

The benefits of such technology aren't limited to coping with drought, of course, but given that drought is likely to be a widespread, persistent problem, it can help to keep marginal land, which might otherwise turn to desert, in sustainable production, and perhaps even help to reclaim some land that has already been lost to desertification, beginning with the construction of windbreak fences (like snow fences) to accumulate wind-blown dust that will become the berms into which living windbreaks can be planted.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bay Area commercial space vacancy spikelet following opening of Apple's campus 2

While it's certain that Apple won't be vacating all of the commercial property they've occupied over the last few years, when their Campus 2 opens next year, some of those properties are sure to become surplus space and unnecessary expenses as far as the company is concerned. And while some of that space will be immediately snatched up by the growing collection of enterprises that participate in Apple's ecosystem or cater to their employees, there's still likely to be a spike in the commercial property vacancy rate.

Anticipating this, Cupertino and other nearby communities should be thinking about whether they want to allow those properties to sit idle, waiting for other suitable tenants to come along, or for Apple to again outgrow their own facilities, or should they perhaps encourage their conversion to other uses: housing, mixed use, indoor vegetable production, etc. This would be a good time to start examining and if necessary reforming their zoning ordinances, to clear away legal obstacles to alternative uses of what might otherwise become a problem.

Here's what a few communities are doing with abandoned shopping malls...

Saturday, February 14, 2015

intro/blog from (cultibot)

From my personal profile/blog on
(account name: cultibot)

26 Mar 2011 (updated 26 Mar 2011 at 02:45)
Some Things Can't Be Done Without Robots

I had pretensions of being a back-to-the-land hippy before I ever became seriously interested in robotics, but my brother successfully popped that bubble with a simple, unarguable observation, that most people don't want to go back to subsistence farming. So far as that went, he was right, but that didn't make the abusive practices of modern agriculture acceptable. I didn't have an answer, but I kept looking for one.

I had a pretty good idea of what computing was about from an introduction to CS class in which we wrote FORTRAN programs on cardpunches. At that scale there was no help to be found from that direction, but the advent of the microprocessor changed everything. Suddenly it became thinkable to have mobile devices each with its own electronic brain. My mind reeled with the possibilities, but there were a million unknowns.

One thing was clear, though, if Moore's Law was even close to being correct it wouldn't be long before the speed of the electronics was no longer the hangup. It would be the mechanical designs, the software, much of which would depend on transforming biological knowledge into computer code, and the chicken/egg problem of creating an industry and a market for that industry's products at the same time.

And that's pretty much where we are now. The speed of the electronics has so far exceeded the other pieces of the puzzle that even if we might wish for still more it's a moot point. We're not putting what's available to good use.

Remember, we're talking here about getting what we need from the land while honoring the back-to-the-land aesthetic of living lightly upon it, as a species, but not about people fleeing the cities to scratch out their personal livelihoods with whatever meager assemblage of skills they might manage to collect. That could be more destructive than factory farms.

The solution, really the only possible solution if we're to stop soil erosion, ground water and stream contamination, the loss of biodiversity, and the gutting of rural culture, is robots. That's right, robots.

Only by substituting machines which can be invested with some understanding of ecology, or which are at least well suited to play a role in an ecologically sound approach, for the dumb machines currently in use, can we have it all, our comfortable lives, a reliable supply of food of varied types, and a clear conscience.

I'd love to be telling you about all of the cool developments in cultivation robotics, how this team had succeeded in building a system that could differentiate between closely related species immediately upon sprouting, and how another had created a tiny robot that ran on the body fluids of the aphids it consumed. I wish I could report that the USDA had funded research into intermingling rare and endangered native species with crop species and making room for moderate wildlife populations without sacrificing too much commercial productivity. Heh, at least I can truthfully say it could happen, which seemed pretty far fetched just one year ago.

Realistically, though, nearly all of that sort of work remains to be done, and it'll be a great ride when it finally does begin to happen!

25 Feb 2011 Key term: Precision Agriculture

In considering how robotics might be applied to agriculture, a current trend to watch goes by the name Precision Agriculture. This series of posts on provides some idea what's meant by the term and how it's used.

25 Feb 2011 (updated 25 Feb 2011 at 20:11)
Sony’s War On Makers, Hackers, And Innovators

An article by Phillip Torrone on Make's blog declares Sony an enemy for all makers, hackers, and innovators and explores the company's long history of going after legitimate innovation, hobbyists, and competition.

14 Feb 2011 (updated 14 Feb 2011 at 17:17)
why I want to replace tractors

Tractors are good for one thing, pulling something that's difficult to move, generally because moving it means displacing soil, turning over the top layer with a plow, slicing it and turning it slightly with a disc, or simply clawing through it with a harrow. They can, of course, be used to pull lighter loads, but their design is driven by the need to apply strain to a tow bar.

Displacing soil (tillage) might be termed the original sin, although overgrazing resulting from large herds of domestic animals moving too slowly/frequently over marginal land predates it. Through excessive aeration, tillage burns through humus (the organic content that, among other things improves the ability of soil to retain water), and exposes the soil surface to wind and water erosion. It also consumes a considerable amount of energy, usually in the form of diesel fuel.

To make matters worse, mechanical tillage works best with the worst cropping practice, monoculture, where a single type of seed is sown over an entire field, effectively all at once, and the crop typically harvested by shearing off everything more than a few inches above ground level. It's a practice that's efficient in terms of the number of man-hours required per land area, but at a terrible cost.

Personally, though, I have another reason for wanting to replace tractors; they're dangerous. I grew up in a farming community, and, of the farmers I knew as a child, two were crushed by overturning tractors (inherently unstable because they're designed for traction), and another was killed by a falling disc section.

So please forgive me if I seem a little too zealous, too much in a hurry to retire a nineteenth century technology and replace it with something not yet available, something so different that it will require a systemic overhaul, one long overdue in my humble opinion.

13 Feb 2011 An Initiative to Keep America's Robotics Roadmap Relevant

Did you know the United States has a roadmap for robotics? It does! In 2006, a one-day workshop titled Science and Technology Challenges for Robotics was organized by George Bekey of USC, Vijay Kumar of UPenn, and Matthew Mason of CMU. A summary report of that workshop states There was an enthusiastic response to the workshop with over 85 participants. Discussions had to be cut short because of time constraints. This could clearly have been a two-day workshop. There were many volunteers who were ready to take on more responsibilities to promote the discipline. (Vijay Kumar has recently been interviewed on Robots Podcast and was mentioned on even more recently.)

During the process which followed that workshop, Matthew Mason and Henrik Christensen of Georgia Tech collaborated on an essay which summarized the state of robotics and previewed the findings of the effort to produce a roadmap for robotics. (Before occupying the KUKA Chair of Robotics at Georgia Tech's College of Computing, Henrik Christensen was the founding Chairman of EURON, the European Robotics Research Network.)

The final roadmap report was presented in May, 2009, before the Congressional Robotics Caucus, however, in the effort to produce that report, the call for the formation of an American Robotics Network (9th slide) appears to have fallen by the wayside.

On January 22nd, Professor Christensen posed the question Are we ready for an American Robotics Network on his blog, saying that he had started a discussion regarding the organization of an American Robotics Network. He has also discussed the formation of such a network in a brief essay on his website. In the recent blog post, he says I would like to get this underway as soon as possible to make sure that we can leverage the momentum from a National Robotics Initiative. It will also be an important mechanism to make sure that we can maintain a push forward.

12 Feb 2011 (updated 13 Feb 2011 at 03:37)
a minimal-hardware approach to weeding

The idea presented here applies only to weed seedlings. Weeds growing from tubers or invasive roots will need to be handled more aggressively, but seedlings, being poorly rooted, are vulnerable to methods that destroy their single meristem. Moreover, after a few years of careful weeding, they are the only type of weed that would persist, except for those growing from runners invading from adjacent land, around the perimeter of the plot, so this method would become gradually more sufficient.

In a nutshell, the idea is to use video imagery to locate seedlings, an expert system (the hard part) to distinguish between desirable seedlings and weeds, and a pulse laser to first make sure it has a clear path to the weed seedling (nothing in the way), focus on the portion of the seedling containing the meristem and then deliver one or more relatively high-energy pulses to heat it sufficiently to render the meristem inert, so that the cells are no longer capable of growth and division. It isn't actually necessary to kill the meristematic tissue outright, just inactivate it, so the higher energy pulses used to accomplish this should not need to be so powerful that they present any danger of fire.

Of course, if the machine carrying out this task maintains or has access to a very detailed map of the plot, which precisely locates and keeps an image archive of every seedling, the next time it passes nearby it can simply check whether the plant appears to have withered, or whether it has recovered and continued growth, in which case it may be time to call in heavier equipment. In this way it can build experience with just how much energy is required to stop the growth of a weed seedling of a particular type at a particular stage in its development. Weeds that survive the surgical approach of the laser can be dealt with by more conventional mechanical methods.

The video system should at least combine a wide-angle view with a telescopic view (needed to distinguish between weeds and desirable seedlings). Either or both might be binocular (stereo), for 3D capability, and the telescopic view in particular would benefit from the use of a sensor that could deliver partial frames very rapidly, to help assess the effectiveness of the laser pulses (how much does the meristem swell within the first tenth of a second?).

I call this a minimal-hardware approach because it involves little more than a pair of cameras, one wide-angle and the other telescopic (two pair for stereo video at both focal lengths) and a laser, on a mount with two degrees of freedom, both rotational, and some means of moving that mount around a plot or field. The real complexity would be in the software that deciphered the video input, deciding which seedlings to zap and which to let live. A high-pressure water jet could be substituted for a laser, but such an arrangement would be more challenging mechanically, because the nozzle would need to either come within a few inches of the seedling or use a significant amount of water to be effective. Too much water applied at high pressure might create other problems, for example encouraging the growth of fungi.

The knowledge necessary to distinguish between seedlings of various species would be an appropriate addition to the RoboEarth project.

6 Feb 2011
a compromise between rails and walking directly on the ground

If the area to be covered by a farmbot is known, and limited, it might be tempting to outfit the land with rails and the machine with wheels to match, to keep the weight of the machine off the soil and improve its mobility, but in areas where production is constrained by low precipitation or short growing seasons this could prove uneconomic.

A possible compromise solution would be to use long, spider-like legs to span between the tops of posts, a foot or two above the soil surface, or even just low mounds of gravel. Providing this much infrastructure would not only prevent tracking and compression of the soil over most of the area, but it would help the machine locate itself in the field, since the posts or mounds would have known, static locations.

While such machines might move more slowly than if they were equipped with wheels running on rail, the logistics of having several working the same field would be simpler, since they could just walk around each other.

2 Feb 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 17:27)
cascading distributed network

Another such idea (taken through initial development as a thought experiment), in this case one that you'd have to be a chip hacker or microcode programmer to actually implement, first saw the light of day years ago, on The WELL, and then more recently in a topic in the Robots Podcast Forum (since closed).

This one is about very efficient addressing and message passing through a processor network having arbitrary topology, using only the minimum necessary number of bits for each step in a path, and automatically generating a return address, which can also serve to identify the source of the message.

It's recently occurred to me that this idea might be particularly applicable to robotics, where machines might have a separate processor to control every major joint and sub-system, and need to pass messages directly between them without going through a central switch, to keep latency manageable.

Such a network could also accommodate situations where hardware needed to be hot-pluggable, added and removed as the situation required, since newly attached hardware would automatically acquire predictable addresses and, in the case of removal, remaining hardware would always have return addresses for use in sending "cannot deliver, that path is closed" messages.

2 Feb 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 16:56)
examples (and the limits) of design through imagination

At the beginning of March, 2009, two such ideas (designs or simulations running inside my head) had been taking up cerebral resources for some time, weeks or months, so, since they weren't going to be getting any better in the absence of something more tangible, either a CAD model or a mockup, neither of which I had time for, I decided to offload them to one of my blogs, in the hope that someone else might benefit.

The first is essentially the miniature equivalent of inserting an air hose through the tread of a tire at a very shallow angle, nearly tangent, to create a dust barrier via the resulting airflow, with the idea of using it to keep dust off of camera lenses and the like.

The second had its origin in the knowledge that the closer you get to the pivot point of a lever the more force is available. Applied to a robotic manipulator, this means that the outer tips of the 'fingers' should be more sensitive and delicate than segments closer to the 'wrist' (the point of attachment to the supporting arm). Conversely, it also means that those inner segments might be used where more force is needed, as in clipping through the stem of a woody shrub. Inconveniently, stems in need of clipping come at odd angles, so if a shear only operates in a single plane that plane may need to be rotated as much as 90 degrees in moving from one clipping to the next, which might require repositioning the entire machine, which could slow down the operation considerably. Giving the manipulator a set or semi-rotatable digits, that can pair in two different X-shaped configurations, 90 degrees opposed from each other, could provide as many as six shear planes without any rotation of the manipulator unit as a whole. This would allow a pruning robot to move from one clipping to the next with a simple repositioning of its digits.

30 Jan 2011 (updated 2 Feb 2011 at 16:08)
Further Introduction

Not mentioned in my intro is that I received a Bachelor's degree in biology in 1980. I'd hoped to return to school for a second degree in engineering, but that never happened, and I spent several very hard years essentially trying to punch my way out of a cognitive bag composed of academic categories, and the emotional baggage I attached to each.

The resolution I found came through the discovery of General Systems Theory, itself an academic category, but one that points to the general applicability of a collection of fundamental concepts. Thus armed, I approached learning with renewed confidence.

It wasn't long after this that I began to become obsessive about computer processors and software, always with an eye to how they might apply to robotics, since I was already interested in mechanizing and scaling up horticulture. Being possessed of a vivid imagination at least with regard to machinery, I built many machines and set them running in my mind, frequently sharing descriptions of these designs with whomever would listen.

For me that was the missing ingredient, collaboration. With no one to share my enthusiasm, it was wet blankets wherever I turned. It's only recently that I've begun to feel like I might have found my tribe.

But I'm not a tinkerer; I'm out to change the world, by replacing big, dumb machines with smaller, smarter (wiser!) ones, beginning with agriculture.

Original introduction:

In 1976, I attended the Social Ecology Summer Program at Goddard College, Vermont. At the very end of that summer I saw my first personal computer, which, rightly or wrongly, I've long assumed was a pre-production Apple II, however unlikely that might seem. In any event, other experiences from that summer combined with the realization that computing was about to become ubiquitous formed in me the beginnings of a dream about using robotic machinery to transform agriculture (and land management in general) for the better.

This dream has persisted and grown more detailed and persuasive ever since, and, along with the increasing detail, I developed a general interest in the various technologies which together make up robotics. On The WELL, after years of scattered brainstorming and random proselytizing, I opened the Augmentation and Robotics Conference (augbot.ind). This conference has never been particularly active but it provided me with a venue where discussion of robotics was at least topical.

In the current, elaborated state of my dream, I now imagine intensive intercropping using soil-conserving no-till methods, combined with the protection of rare and endangered plant species and the provision of habitat for animals, all rolled together in a single system, which could also respond to weather forecasts and might even adjust itself for market conditions. Over the last few years I've shared most facets of this dream via my Cultibotics blog.

Another long-standing interest is automatic transportation systems, such as some of those described on the Innovative Transportation website.

I work as a transit dispatcher, using a GPS-generated display and voice communications to help keep a circulator bus route running smoothly.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015


The US government currently favors production of certain crops, including corn (maize) and soy beans. A proposal, authored by Tamar Haspel and published yesterday in The Washington Post (Unearthed: A rallying cry for a crop program that could change everything), would change that by shifting subsidies from support for particular crops to crop-neutral support.

While this isn't specifically about robotics, it would have the effect of making more money available for equipment to produce crops other than the handful that have traditionally been subsidized, and, increasingly over time, that will mean robotic equipment, as the value added by sensors, processing, and flexible behavior will become too compelling to forego.

Monday, November 17, 2014

marketing custom silicon without aiding your competition

I have, on several occasions, remarked that it would be nice if certain, unnamed chip design houses (on at least one occasion I imprecisely used the word "vendors") would make their chips available to the startup/DIY/hobbyist/education market, in lot sizes appropriate to that market.

So what, you might ask, would prevent other companies from scooping up those chips and using them in competing products? There are two answers to that question.

First, you don't market your latest designs this way, particularly not when your own products are parts-supply constrained. Rather, as each design reaches the end of its life in your own product lineup, you let the fabrication line run for just a bit longer to produce a few extra parts (thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands), for use in repairing returned devices and for sale, at a significant mark-up, to alternative markets, as to the producers of small circuit boards like the Raspberry Pi, or even as single parts to supply houses like SparkFun.

That "significant markup" is the second reason why this would not aid the competition. While you may be able to cost parts included in your own products at a slim margin above the cost of production, there's no need to apply this practice to parts sold into the open market. You can charge several times, even ten times, the cost of production, and still be doing your customers a favor.

The only party who would stand to lose from this, so far as I can see, is Atmel, who has the lion's share of the market for processors used in boards sold to individuals and in small lots. However, since they already have the relationships for serving this market, as well as some potentially useful processor-design related IP, a great first step would be to buy Atmel.

In any case, as the size of this business grows, and it's sure to, it will become more reasonable to create custom designs better suited to it, combining cores honed for highly-competitive mass markets with more generic i/o circuitry. It will also become more reasonable to make one's software development tools available for use in programming devices into which one's chips have been incorporated.

Not saying who I'm talking about/to here, but, if the shoe fits, please try it on.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

politics as a team sport

Let's use an imaginary example, to avoid confusion with real team loyalties, beginning with an imaginary sport, SpaceBall, played in zero gravity (in orbit until it becomes possible to cancel out gravity over a small portion of the Earth's surface, at which point the popularity of the sport takes off). Players navigate about a polyhedron-shaped arena using arm-powered flaps (wings), rebounding off trampoline-like walls, and manipulating the ball with their legs, holding it between their knees as they fly, dribbling it with little nudges as they accelerate and repeatedly catch up with it, or shoving or kicking it to pass it to another player or move it nearer to their own goal or attempt a score. Because the wings afford little control at low speed, the usual practice is to take full advantage of the walls to build up speed, so players can be seen flying through the arena in all directions. To add just a bit to the excitement, players have the option of storing part of the effort they exert in the form of compressed air, which can be released as a jet, accelerating them 'upwards' meaning in the direction of their heads. Near collisions happen continuously, and actual collisions resulting in injuries are quite common. Also, although technically forbidden, except to knock the ball from the grasp of the player who has possession of it, players frequently make intentional contact with their opponents, kicking or slapping them with their arms. It being very difficult to distinguish between intentional and accidental contact, only the most obvious instances are penalized.

Because of the huge expense involved in building an arena, there are only a handful, essentially one per continent, and because of the huge investment required to build a competitive team, only the largest metropolises have their own, while most teams are franchises relying upon something other than specific geographical identity, such as a broader cultural identity, to build their fan bases. Monetizable fan bases are critical, so the investors who originally built or who later bought the teams can recoup their money and make a profit.

The appeal to broader cultural identity means that the teams become surrogates for actual inter-cultural tensions, with the outcome of specific contests frequently being portrayed in moral terms and the elation or dejection from a win or loss frequently spilling over into the streets.

Like the teams in this imaginary scenario, political parties have set themselves up as the champions of various cultural segments, usually multiple such segments, in the effort to patch together a plurality of voters. And, even though they may be put off by the others with whom they find themselves lumped together, and by some of the positions taken by their team's candidates, voters usually hold their noses and vote for the team with which they most strongly identify, with a lot of dark money going to insuring that any combinational irritations aren't felt strongly enough to keep them from doing so, and magnifying the irritations that would be experienced by those switching to a different team affiliation.

This nose-holding propensity is what makes it possible for the deep pockets, essentially investors, to bankroll one team or another, in the assurance that victory will result in a more favorable state of (financial) affairs for themselves.

Rather than go on, providing real-world examples, I'm going to cut to the chase, which is that if you would like to help shrink the influence of big money on politics, one way to do it is to participate in MAYDAY.US, the crowd-funded effort to elect "a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016."

Friday, November 07, 2014

thinking about vertical farming and aquaponics

I don't talk much about this, but I do think vertical farming will be an increasingly important contributor to food production in the future, and that it will be highly mechanized almost from the outset. My concern is with the land that continues to be subject to the need for production and the desire for landscaping, pressures that vertical farming won't relieve soon. So long as we continue to manage land for our own purposes, we need to do a far better, far less destructive job of it!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

debt and voting as a blunt instrument

Sometimes you'd like to vote for a ballot issue, but it contains some fatal flaw, such as the use of debt to pay for something that ought to be funded out of current revenues, even if it means being patient, yet voting against it seems like sending the wrong message, because it's the use of debt that you're voting against, not the basic proposal itself.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

No-till study illuminates part of the problem space

An extensive review article published on Nature's website, and described on the UC Davis news website, concludes that no-till farming only results in yield increases in dryland areas, and then only when combined with crop rotation and residue retention, and that it results in a yield reduction in moist climates.

While I have no reason to doubt the conclusions of the co-authors, as far as they go, I do have some concerns as to the scope of the comparisons they've made. However, not having read the full article, I can only pose questions and suggest considerations which may offset or even outweigh the modest yield reductions in moist climates, which they've noted.

It's hard to know where to start; this is such a complex subject. As practiced in western countries, no-till usually also means weed suppression by use of herbicides. It may or may not include residue retention, but if the residue is retained it is likely to be in rough form rather than finely chopped, or retained as the dung of the animals that grazed on it after harvest, never as well-distributed as the residue was in the first place. It may or may not include crop rotation, but almost certainly does not include polyculture (also called intercropping), which has become an all too rare practice.

Allow me to back up a bit, and consider an assumption, as expressed by one of the co-authors: "The big challenge for agriculture is that we need to further increase yields but greatly reduce our environmental impacts." Certainly we need to vastly reduce the environmental damage being done by modern agriculture, but just how much do we really need to increase yields. Population growth estimates not taking into account the predictable reduction in fecundity that accompanies prosperity will result in alarmism, but the reality is that what benefits the global economy has to offer the poorest are slowly finding their way to every corner of the planet, and it's reasonable to think that the world population will plateau, if not at ten billion, then perhaps at eleven or twelve billion. Of course, there is hunger now, even starvation, much of it happening in the dryland areas surrounding the Sahara. Yield increases in this region would be particularly helpful, but are complicated by competing uses, as fuel and as animal feed, for the residues which should be left in the fields. Realistically, the bottom line comes down to this: Can we afford to sacrifice long-term fertility for short-term gains in yield?

That question begs another, does the article published in Nature include any long-term studies, by which I mean at least twenty years, preferably longer? Not only does tillage gradually burn through (literally oxidize) soil organic matter, eventually effecting water absorption and retention and nutrient availability, and increasing the energy required for ongoing tillage as the soil becomes denser, but also it takes time for an ecosystem of animals and microbes to develop that can efficiently incorporate crop residues into the soil, particularly in fields that have a long history of routine tillage.

Were any options other than simply leaving residue in the field or grazing considered? Are there any cases of fine-chopping residue during harvest? What about initially removing everything but the stubble and returning it after processing it through animals (as feed), through anaerobic digestion (producing methane gas for fuel), and/or through composting?

Were the costs of production considered? No-till generally involves the cost of herbicide and its application, but tillage is an energy-intensive operation, and over the long term diesel will only become more expensive. If the fuel must be grown, shouldn't the percentage of the overall crop area required to grow it be deducted from the net yields? How does no-till look after performing that calculation?

Nor have we yet seen the full benefits of no-till, because we have yet to develop equipment appropriate to it. Western civilization is so accustomed to tillage that we tend to be blind to assumptions made stemming from a fundamental assumption that tillage is the foundation of agriculture. We see equipment built to perform tillage at work and don't think twice about it. There have been some adaptations – spraying equipment that is only as heavy at it needs to be for that purpose, and oversized tires for heavier equipment – but nearly all of the equipment in use, even in no-till operations, still deals with land as a bulk commodity, measured in acres per hour, rather than at the level of detail required to, for example, selectively harvest one crop while leaving several others, intermingled with it, undisturbed.

Until recently, this could only be accomplished by hand labor, but with the advent of computing using integrated circuits, and its combination with sensory hardware, sophisticated mechanisms, and software to match the problem space (together comprising the field of robotics), the question of whether such work can be mechanized has been transformed into one of how soon. A significant obstacle to this development is cultural, in that we've all but forgotten how to tend land in this manner, and may have to reinvent the practice in order to program the machines. Certainly many in our agricultural colleges and universities will require remedial education.