Can Picking Robots Solve the Labor Shortage Dilemma?
Three automation companies discuss how the latest agriculture technologies help growers reduce their reliance on human labor.
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’s 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. Many technology companies have been preparing for the inevitable. Learn more about three 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.
“Currently, the industry relies on large numbers of migrant workers to harvest fruit. The number of people interested in migrant agricultural labor has been shrinking for decades,” he says. “Production of row crops became dramatically more productive with automation. Now, we expect to bring the same benefits to fruits and vegetables.”
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.
“We will continue a long tradition of automation that improves productivity and standards of living,” he says. “In Abundant Robotics’ case, we believe we are ready to make fruit harvest much more productive.”
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.
“The labor crisis issue is divided into two parts,” says CEO Dror Erez. “The main one is that people don’t want to work in the greenhouse or in the field anymore because it is difficult. Farmers have a hard time finding workers in general. The more developed the country, the more difficult it is to find labor.”
The second part of the problem has to do with paying workers a livable wage in an industry where it’s best to expect the unexpected.
“It’s difficult for farmers to survive financially because the crisis goes up and down,” Erez says. “These farmers need more efficient tools to work with. The 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.
“Our slogan is to help solve the international agricultural employment crisis, by developing autonomous, efficient and affordable robots for every farmer,” Erez says. “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.”
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 aren’t the only barriers to picking robots—the market is.
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.
“Because retailers haven’t selected strawberry varieties based on pick-ability, it has slowed the introduction of these robots into the market,” says Octinion CEO Tom Coen. “We grow the strawberries just the same, but we stimulate the usage of other varieties.”
Now, Coen sees the problem being one of companies attempting to predict the future.
“People are creating solutions that will never see light of day because they are creating solutions for yesterday’s problems instead of tomorrow,” he says. “This is understandable because there is always a bigger market for solutions to yesterday’s problems because tomorrow’s are harder to calculate.”
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.
“The green side facing up looks terrible to consumers. Our approach is to provide the best robot that can pick the fruit and package it with the top down. Rubion does exactly that,” Coen says.