The rain people

Automation is wonderful - or is it? Certainly, the use of machine vision in such systems has replaced the manually tedious, repetitive and often inaccurate tasks of ensuring that electronic, food, beverage and mechanical products can be manufactured more effectively at lower costs.

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Automation is wonderful - or is it? Certainly, the use of machine vision in such systems has replaced the manually tedious, repetitive and often inaccurate tasks of ensuring that electronic, food, beverage and mechanical products can be manufactured more effectively at lower costs. Indeed, in this issue, you can read about some of the ways systems integrators are using OEM products to develop such systems.

But when does the level automation cross the bounds of morality? For example, some would argue that robots building automotive parts, assembling cars and the driverless cars of the future will bring a great benefit to mankind. Others may argue that jobs will be lost due this level of automation. I would disagree. Replacing such tedious tasks from a human operator can only have its benefits. However, there are other applications where such automation crosses the boundary between productivity and responsibility.

In his 1969 motion picture classic The Rain People (http://imdb.to/1M7Y2Xd), director Francis Ford Coppola introduces a handicapped ex-football player known as Killer Kilgannon (played by James Caan). In one scene, Killer visits a farm where chickens are kept in a single barn in cages. Realizing this, he decides to release them much to the chagrin of the farmer and the local police. Needless to say, after watching the film in 1969, I only purchase “free range” eggs!

Unfortunately, this same sad situation is now being repeated with larger farm animals - notably cows. In a recent article entitled “How automation could benefit agriculture,” by Claire Marshall, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Environment Correspondent shows how intelligent automation can be used to feed, care for and milk a dairy herd by just one or two people (http://bbc.in/1KnMolU).

The culprit here - in my humble opinion - is Robert Veitch - a dairy farmer in Scotland that has employed a robotic feeding and milking system. At first glance, it may appear that the use of such an automated system in his £1.8 million facility where ten machines take care of 250 cattle is a good idea. A feeding robot feeds the cows and they are milked and weighed as they move in the milking parlor - at will - without any human intervention.

However, according to BBC’s Marshall, the cows are kept inside a shed that has a high roof and is open to the outdoors at the sides, allowing in daylight and fresh air. But the cows do not eat grass - they are kept in the shed. According to Marshall’s report, Veitch has said that he believes that the cows are kept so comfortable that “They wouldn’t want to go out even on a good day.” Of course, he would say that because milk yields have risen per cow from 28 to 36 liters a day.

My apologies if I sound like an animal right’s activist, but surely, this level of automation has crossed the boundary between productivity and responsibility.

Andy WilsonAndy Wilson, Editor in Chief
andyw@pennwell.com
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