Technology was bound to step in to agriculture sooner or later and replace seasonal farmworkers. It can be very physically demanding work to be out in the sun all day picking fruits and vegetables, so why not institute robots in place of humans to save that stress on humans and to possibly do it faster as well?
That day of bringing robots in to tend to the fields isn’t that far behind; in fact, not only are they currently working on a robot to do this work, they’re already currently using one in testing, with engineers suggesting they could replace workers as soon as next year.
But it’s not necessarily replacing workers altogether, as there happens to be an increasing shortage of labor.
“The labor force keeps shrinking,” said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation farmer in the United States. “If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person.”
In Florida they have the traditional human laborers working alongside a robot nicknamed Harv. It’s the latest robot model from the Harvest CROO Robotics automatic company.
One of the biggest challenges to creating a harvesting robot is that it needs a “gentle touch.” When you go to the market to buy your fruits and vegetables, you want them to be unmarred, ripe, and fresh and not marred, spoiled, and unripe.
Last year in a test run Harv was only able to gather twenty percent of healthy strawberries from each plant without mishap. This year the robot has a goal of fifty percent. Human workers pick closer to 80 percent.
Harv is being funded by several farmers and produce companies. They have raised $9 million together. The robot was created by Wishnatzki and Bob Pitzer, a former Intel engineer who also formerly worked on the television show “BattleBots.” Wishnatzki has invested $3 million in Harv.
The robot looks like a sideways semi-truck rolling through the fields. Underneath it are sixteen smaller robots that pick the berries with spinning claws that are being guided by a camera and flashing lights. Harv works on a a dozen plants at the same time, picking five strawberries every second and covering eight acres in one day. It can do the work of thirty people.
Harv isn’t alone. Washington State University is testing an apple-picking machine that has a dozen mechanical arms. It moves through an orchard taking pictures of trees. A computer scans the photos and finds the fruit, and the arms pick the apples and put them on a conveyor belt.
Are Robots the Future of Farming?
Some areas are finding it more difficult to find humans to do this type of work. “Automation is the long-term solution, given the reluctance of domestic workers to do these jobs,” said Tim Richards, the Morrison chair of agribusiness in the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU.
Wishnatzki reports that he lost around $1 million last year because of spoiled fruit. But by turning to robots, it wouldn’t eliminate jobs altogether.
He insists there would be new jobs, as he would train his pickers to be become technicians. “We need people to clean, sanitize, and repair the machines, he insisted.
It’s the hope of farmers to have the robots in place within a few years. They need to fix the workforce problem and stop losing money due to unpicked fruit spoiling.
What are your thoughts regarding integrating robots to do seasonal farm work? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Image Credit: Zack Wittman via Washington Post