Astronauts on space missions are busy -- too busy to tend the hydroponic gardens that will keep them alive on long trips to distant worlds, or on the surface of the Moon or Mars. Using a $100,000 NASA grant, Peter Ling of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center has created a robotic tomato harvester to keep astronauts on task.

NASA understands that long-term space missions depend on some form of farming as a matter of survivial. Plant cultivation not only yields foodstuffs and organic material, but also helps make air breathable and can provide water filtration.

"Labor requirements to grow and harvest the crops must be reduced through automation," said Ling. "Growing a salad crop, having something live in a space station, is very important for both nutritional and psychological reasons. At the same time, automation is needed to save production and harvesting time."

The tomato harvester robot is able to locate and pick ripe tomatoes; the robot's "eye" scans the tomato plant and determines the number and position of ripe fruit. Image processing algorithms created specifically for the robot are able to detect ripe fruit even if it is partially obscured by branches or leaves. Using this data, the four-fingered prosthetic hand locates a tomato, opens the fingers and takes hold of the fruit. The robot balances pulling, bending and torsion movements to detach the tasty treat.

The robot has been tested here on Earth; success rates of fruit sensing are running at 95% and fruit picking success is rated at 85%. This technology is also planned for use right here on Earth. The robot has been demonstrated at the Kennedy Space Center.

Science fiction authors have long understood the need for a viable food source on long space voyages. One example is the lifezone, an agricultural environment pod from Gregory Benford's 1989 novel Tides of Light. And here on Earth, William Gibson wrote about a robot crab, a kind of automated gardner, in Neuromancer.

(This Science Fiction in the News story used with permission from Technovelgy.com - where science meets fiction.)