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Today’s farmers are well versed in the art of doing more with less. From stricter water use regulations to an expanding list of banned crop protection chemistries, growers have always found innovative ways to work smarter. Although processes and inputs can be stretch to the limit to maximize profits, human labor cannot—and it is becoming a devastating problem.
The increasing worker shortage continues to make it difficult for farmers to get the job done on time and below cost. The COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated these issues, but the agricultural industry’s labor woes are old news. As a result, technology companies are developing novel robotics solutions that address agriculture’s labor shortage challenge. They include firms developing automated picking robots that that greatly reduce the need for human labor.
Abundant Robotics Apple Harvester
What if growing fruits and vegetables could be as productive as traditional row crops, like corn, cotton and wheat, simply by introducing automation? Abundant Robotics co-founder and CEO Dan Steere not only knows this is possible, he believes it is essential.
According to Abundant Robotics, the agricultural industry relies on large numbers of migrant workers to harvest fruit. However, the number of people interested in migrant agricultural labor has been shrinking for decades.
Steere points out that the production of row crops became dramatically more productive with automation. Now, we expect to bring the same benefits to fruits and vegetables.”
(Abundant Robotics) will continue a long tradition of automation that improves productivity and standards of living. In (our) case, we are ready to make fruit harvest much more productive.
– Dan Steere, CEO, Abundant Robotics
According to company officials, Abundant Robotics’ commercial robotic apple harvest is the world’s first. The self-driving harvester travels down orchard rows, identifies ripe fruit as accurately as a human worker, picks the apple and places it in a bin as carefully as the worker would. A pre-production prototype is currently being tested, and Steere is optimistic about the future.
Automato Robotics Single Tomato Harvester
While many farmers hope technology will help address labor shortages, the solution is not simple as replacing humans with robots. Automato Robotics understands the complexity of the problem, as well as the barriers to implementing a viable worker replacement.
How come in 2020 there aren’t any robots to pick tomatoes? Cost effectiveness. In order to make the change in the mass market, we must do it in an affordable way
– Dror Erez, CEO, Automato Robotics
Farmers need more efficient tools to address the ongoing agricultural labor shortage challenge, as well as pay workers a livable wage in an industry where it is best to expect the unexpected. But the cost for automation solutions is also an issue.
Automato seeks address the international agricultural employment crisis by developing autonomous, efficient and affordable robots for every farmer. According to Automato Robotics representatives, the company’s Automato single tomato harvester is affordable for small- and medium-sized farmers, so they can reduce harvest costs by 50 percent in five years.”
The harvester works by driving down the greenhouse rows and selecting tomatoes based on specific maturity and redness parameters set by the farmer. It puts them in a box, and once the box is filled, it is taken to a central location for unloading.
The robot picks slower than the average human, but it also is able to work for twice as long (16 hours versus the usual eight). The result is one robot can pick approximately 12,000 tomatoes per day, replacing one worker per one hectare of greenhouse space. With national subsidies, most growers can reclaim the cost of their investment in one-and-a-half years.
Octinion Rubion Strawberry Picker
If a robotic picker could delicately select perfectly-ripe strawberries without the stem or bruising the fruit, sort them based on weight, place each in a box and do so at a rate that matches the human picking cost, implementing a technological solution would seem like a no-brainer. In some cases, however, cost, capability and crop type are not the only barriers to picking robots—the market is.
People are creating solutions that will never see light of day because they are creating solutions for yesterday’s problems instead of tomorrow. This is understandable because there is always a bigger market for solutions to yesterday’s problems because tomorrow’s are harder to calculate.”
– Tom Coen, CEO, Octinion
While Octinion’s Rubion strawberry picker boasts all of the previously mentioned skills and more, farmers have been slow to accept autonomous solutions due to logistics. Retailers often drive the varieties of strawberries growers produce, and they make these decisions based on things like berry appearance and shelf-life. No one ever accounted for the impact of picking robots.
According to Octinion retailers have not selected strawberry varieties based on pick-ability. This, in turn, has slowed the introduction of strawberry robots into the market. Octinion is developing a solution that can pick multiple strawberry varieties.
Octinion’s Rubion sets itself apart from the competition by delivering a new solution to an essential issue plaguing other strawberry harvesters: the stem. Most robotic pickers select the stem to avoid touching the fruit, which means the fruit must be packaged with the stems facing up.
Octinion notes that picking by grabbing the stem delivers a low-quality crop. They also believe that packing with the green side – the top – facing up looks terrible to consumers. Their approach is to produce a robot that can pick the fruit and package it with the top down.
Editors Note: A video of Octinion’s Rubion strawberry picking can be found HERE.
About the Author
Karli Petrovic is currently an essayist at KPWrites.com where she develops content that connects brands to their audiences, promoting products and company values in an interesting and accessible way. Previously, she was Contributing Editor at iQ by Intel. She can be reached at kpflowspdx[AT]gmail.com.
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