Visiting Oslo recently, I enjoyed a very pleasant walk round the epicentre of the Norwegian capital.
I was in an area where I was able to see the royal palace on the one hand and the parliament building on the other. Unsurprisingly, there were abundant public open spaces, all attractively landscaped and well-maintained, including the grassed areas which, in addition to looking more like lawns than grassed areas in public open spaces, were litter-free as far as I could see. And my eye was caught by something moving on the grass perhaps 50 metres distant, something mechanical and apparently not in need of any human assistance or control. My curiosity prompted me to walk towards it to discover more about this mystery object; and, as I drew closer to it, I realised what it was. It was a robot grass mower, something which I had seen on television but had never seen, as it were, in the flesh. Indeed, there was no operative controlling it or even supervising what it was doing as it manoeuvred itself round and in between flowerbeds, merrily mowing the … well, let’s call it what it resembled … the lawn. Nor, as I realised, was there anyone protecting it, for none of the locals seemed at all interested in attempting to disturb the machine and it, of course, was not encountering cans or bottles or discarded hot food takeaway wrappers or polystyrene containers. Ah, lucky machine and lucky Oslovians, to use their correct demonym, not to mention lucky visitors. What has become of civic pride in contemporary Scotland?
So my first thoughts about Scottish local authorities being able to maintain their public grassed areas better without incurring unaffordable increases in the numbers of their ground maintenance personnel evaporated. Nor am I interested in acquiring a robot mower on my own account, having replaced all my natural grass with turf of the artificial variety. But, with this still-recent experience hovering somewhere in my conscious mind, a news story about a machine called the Trimbot attracted my attention; and no, the Trimbot is not some form of exerciser which ‘guarantees’ an attractive posterior. The Trimbot “uses cameras and 3D mapping technology to find its way around gardens and perform precise tasks with cutting tools,” to quote from a news release from the University of Edinburgh. Professor Bob Fisher, of the University’s School of Informatics, led the team of Edinburgh researchers whose four-year project was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. It also involves scientists from Wageningen University and Research, the Universities of Amsterdam, Groningen and Freiburg, ETH Zurich and Bosch.
So does this mean that I can assign all my remaining gardening tasks to a smart machine; will it clear weeds, plant seeds and summer bedding and be a willing and welcome partner in the autumnal clean-up? Alas, no; at least, not in the near future. But what it will do is impressive. Quoting again from the University’s announcement, “The green-fingered device – known as Trimbot – uses cameras and 3D mapping technology to find its way around gardens and perform precise tasks with cutting tools. Researchers created algorithms that enable the robot to compare overgrown bushes with ideal final shapes as it trims. … (so that) Trimbot can prune roses by pinpointing the exact part of each plant’s stem that should be cut.” I confess that we are in an area of human ingenuity about which I know very little and understand even less. But I can marvel at the intellectual powers of researchers who have created algorithms that enable a robot equipped with five pairs of cameras, a flexible robotic arm and a specially designed cutting tool to perform this skilled task. The machine represents a major feat of engineering by the eight partner teams who made it work reliably in a garden’s changing lighting and environmental conditions. Prototype robots could be used to maintain communal green spaces, support farmers and help people with mobility issues tend their gardens, researchers say. But they won’t help me in my rose-free garden!