Robots are replacing human workers at a faster pace than any other point in history. Most of these robots are in factories, but a new kind of mechanized worker has hit apple orchards.
Abundant Robotics in California has built an automated apple picker, that uses a vacuum system to suck the fruit straight off of the trees.
“As a kid in Louisiana I was inspired by agricultural equipment such as combines, cotton pickers, and tractors,” Abundant Robotics CEO Dan Steere told the Newshour. “The work we’re doing is an extension of several hundreds of years of technology innovation for agriculture.”
Testing for the picker is underway in Australia, where apples are in season. In the autumn, the prototype will return to the United States and will continue testing in Washington, where apple orchards are a significant part of the economy. In 2004, 58 percent of apples grown in the U.S. came from Washington.
“Harvesting apples isn’t an unskilled job. It’s highly skilled and difficult work,” Todd Fryhover from the Washington Apple Commission told NewsHour. “Robotics will help in harvesting the apples at the optimum time to provide the best possible apple to consumers.
Unlike other kinds of harvesting, fruit picking requires the type of precision only capable by human eyes and hands. You can’t just chop down the plant, like wheat, and scoop up what’s there.
“The robot’s got to be able to identify an apple, and then after that, tell if it is ripe,” said Dan Swafford, an agricultural technologist at Virginia Tech. “It takes a lot of specialized sensors and cameras to do that, and then they have to be able to pick the fruit without damaging it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the seasonal laborer workforce — who typically picks tree fruit — can vary dramatically in size from one harvest to the next, said Karen Lewis, a tree-fruit specialist at Washington State University.