The Technology Challenge
Unfortunately, despite the need to reduce reliance on human labor, there are other factors preventing the widespread use of automation. “Technology companies have often seen the fruit and vege-table industry as being too small in terms of acres and too complicated,” explains Athanassiadis. “As an indication, there are more than 90 million acres of land planted to corn while less than 300,000 acres planted to lettuce. That’s 300 times more acres of corn than lettuce.”
The different requirements of growers also pose challenges. “The needs of a lettuce grower in Salinas and those of an apple grower in Wenatchee or of a potato grower in Idaho are very different,” observes Athanassiadis. So the tech companies often go to large scale agriculture and broad acre crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton. The produce industry, as a result, is often neglected.”
The Good News
Regardless of the challenges, there are efforts throughout the country to bring automation—through various methods—to a variety of crops from celery and cabbage to apples and berries.
A mechanical harvester is one item high on the wish list. Karkee’s apple harvesting prototype uses a camera to find the fruit, a robotic arm to reach for it, and a soft pneumatic hand to actually pick it. It was first developed in 2013 and is designed to solve inherent problems like damaging fruit and not having the ability to remove extraneous items like sticks.
This model has much promise: “It’s faster and gentler,” Karkee says. “It doesn’t bruise the fruit.” He hopes the mechanical picker will be on the market in the next three years, though the technology itself will be shared. “We test it, validate it, and share the design information and data with the public,” he says. “Companies that are interested can take it from there.”
Currently, Karkee is trying to improve the prototype’s agility. “A human picks an apple every two seconds; the robotic hand picks one every four to five seconds. We’d like to get that down to three seconds,” he notes.
More Good News
In Florida, Wishnatzki continues to test the robotic strawberry picker. Like the apple picker, there are various problems to overcome, including the need to pick a strawberry field every three days to prevent the fruit from becoming overripe.
Harvest CROO Robotics was founded in 2013 and 20 percent of the U.S. strawberry industry is invested, Wishnatzki says. Like the apple harvester, the strawberry picking machine uses a vision system to identify the berries and determine if they are ripe enough (by color) to pick. An apparatus then grabs the plants and holds the leaves back. A wheel with multiple claws rotates around the plant and picks the berries.