In May of this year, Google Ventures - Google's venture capital fund - decided to invest US $10 million in Abundant Robotics, a US startup that is working on the development of a robot that harvests apples, which could also serve in the future as a basis for creating robots for other fruit trees.
The Californian project is not alone. The FFRobotics and Robotics Plus companies are also in the race to automate apple harvesting in Israel and New Zealand, respectively. While the technology still doesn't exist at the commercial level, it is expected to be a reality in the next decade and the first step to stop relying on people in the fresh fruit harvest.
Although there are no such initiatives in Chile, producers and exporters are also making progress on this path. There is incipient evidence of orchard designs that would serve an eventual apple harvesting robot - with high density, trees of lower height, and a more exposed fruit that is easier to pick - and an increasing number of machines for the collection of berries that, despite not being new, are becoming more common among producers. In addition, the sector has incorporated the latest technology equipment for the selection of fruit qualities in packing facilities, especially in cherries and blueberries.
The lower availability of labor is one of the factors that pushes the most towards automation and has promoted the advance of nut plantations in Chile, such as walnuts and European hazelnut, where it is estimated that the harvest in about 60% of the surface the is carried out mechanically. However, it is still not the reality of fruit growing in general, and experts estimate that the country is lagging behind its main competitors.
"In the last five to ten years, the fruit sector has advanced, but not to the same extent as extensive crops, such as wheat or corn, and it is not because there are no equipment or systems, but because fruit producers still prefer to have workers, when they can. However, labor becomes scarcer by the season and that is why the panorama has been changing," stated Jose Mery, a professor of machinery at the Universidad Mayor who is in charge of the fleet of machines of La Rosa Sofruco.
Eduardo Armstrong, a mechanization specialist who represents several brands with his company Global Farms, has a similar opinion, as he believes that the start of automation in fruit trees has been slower than in other leading countries in this area.
"If we leave aside the vines, the degree of mechanization in Chile is on the order of 5% of the surface, and today we must know that technologies are not an option but a necessity, because who the producers that don't invest in the latest available technology are reducing their income year by year and are destined to disappear," he said.
According to Jose Mery, there is a five to ten years delay in mechanization at the country level, mainly because much of the industry is still focused on obtaining the largest possible volume.
"Producers care a lot about the species, the variety, the pruning system and not having pesticide residues, because they can't export if they don't comply with these issues, but in many cases only they only bet on volume. As the focus is not on quality, there is a lower mechanization," he said.
The idea goes hand in hand with the arguments of the producers and exporters that have advanced the most in the incorporation of new technologies, as they state that the shift towards mechanization is due to the shortage of labor, the need to improve efficiency, open new business opportunities, and ensure the traceability and safety of their fruits.
Gaining market share
Being a group of exporting producers, the partners of Huertos Collipulli, in La Araucanía, want to optimize the process of their apples, cherries and blueberries from the field to the destination markets.
One of the most important changes they have made was the incorporation, last season, of an optical blueberry selector. It is an equipment that allows them to accurately separate blueberries according to their caliber, color and defects, through photos that it takes to each fruit in a few seconds, without the intervention of people, and that they define as a success.
"Before, we decided the fruit's destiny according to how it arrived to the packing facility, but now we can select it in an effective way and to obtain batches that are good for Asia, for example, or that can be exported and that were previously rejected," said the manager of the company, Cristobal Duke.
He also said that the equipment had allowed them to save 30% of the fruit, which was not previously intended for export, and to increase the percentage that goes to the Asian continent from 12% to 30%, and the one that goes to England, from 5% to 20%, as they are distant markets that require the blueberries to arrive firm and in optimum conditions.
"The main factor of this technology is not to reduce the need for labor, but to be able to change the export mix. It allows us to have more fruit for more distant markets and have more decision power on where to send it, and that it's key. We were able to triple our presence in the different programs," he said.
The first of these optical selectors -which the main exporters of blueberries currently own- arrived in Chile in the 2013-2014 season, through the Italian firm Unitec, a leader in the new post-harvest equipment for this species, apples and cherries.
"In general, I can say that the demand for mechanization in Chile is growing and people are always looking for automation and improvements to advance yields and efficiency. I think the greatest dynamism is in fresh products, such as cherries and blueberries, which have a very reduced packing time before exports," said the general manager of Unitec Chile, Nour Abdrabbo, adding that the apple sector was slower, due to the low prices it has faced because the fruit can be saved for months.
Regarding the analysis that producers and exporters must conduct when investing in a new technology or machinery, Abdrabbo insisted that they should only focus on prices, but also on the benefits that this technologies implied. "The important thing is the benefit it gives you, because you can buy something that is worth US $10 and not use it, so you lose that money, or something worth US $100 and that allows you to do a better job that is an investment you recover in time. So saying something is expensive or cheap is absolutely relative," he stated.
Eduardo and Alejandro Pinochet are two brothers that have been producing for several decades in the Region of Maule, and that began to produce fruits for the agricultural industry in 2004.
They started the APFrut company with a plant capable of processing 15 to 20 tons of fruit a day. Ten years later they increased their capacity to 150 tons per day and had the ability to store up to 14 thousand tons of frozen fruit, including cherries, kiwis, and grapes. This growth implied changes and mechanization has been key.
"One of the main objectives of producing with mechanical harvest is replacing labor, but food safety and health are a very important issue. The less people there are in the chain the safer it is, because of microbiological contamination, which is why we are on the path of continuing to automate the crops to target customers who pay for that food security plus," said Eduardo Pinochet.
He also said that it was a good business in terms of costs because, even though it required a high initial investment, producers recovered the value of a machine in three to four years. In addition, since a machine has an average duration of 15 years, the remaining years producers would only have lower operating costs, as the cost of labor always tends to rise.
"What we want is to automate all our fields, that all have technical irrigation, clean water, mechanization in the crops, pedestrian gardens in the cherries and a standard of more qualified people to be able to optimize the yields. Otherwise it is very easy to have a deficit," he said. In order to this, he added, they are renovating the old orchards with designs suitable for machinery and changing varieties that are not profitable for this type of work.
Regarding the area of the company destined to the export of fresh fruit, Eduardo Pinochet said that -since it can't still be fully automated- they seek to incorporate the latest technology available in the packing, such as cherry optic selectors, bag fillers and automatic boxes, so as not to depend on the supply of labor.
"When these automated lines did not exist, a company would process 15 kilos of cherries per person, per hour, and now it processes 50 kilos. Today, given the volume of cherries produced by Chile, it would be impossible to pack them without these technologies, which also allow us to have a uniform quality," he added.
In search of efficiency
Excluding the extensive crops, such as wheat or maize, so far the grapes for wine and nuts sectors are the most advanced sectors in terms of mechanization in Chile.
In the latter, automation is not seen as an alternative, but as an obligation, which has led to the incorporation of combine harvesters, drying and fruit processing equipment.
In that sense, Agroimec's head of mechanized harvesting products, Matias Zuñiga, said that most of the producers choose to invest in their own machines, and that only isolated cases contract services for the harvest. The next step is to have their own drying equipment, to avoid discounts in the settlements for this service and to deliver the processed fruit to the exporting companies.
"Producers that have more than 30 to 35 hectares are already getting their own processing lines and dryers, because when they send the freshly harvested fruit to the exporters there is a bottleneck and they do not have enough reception capacity to dry everything that they receive, so they achieve nothing by having a very good harvester if they can't dry the fruit well," he said.
Matias Zuñiga stated that if a harvester harvests 7 to 8 hectares per day on average, the producer must know how to dry nearly 16 thousand kilos of fruit daily, so in this area - especially in walnuts - the progress in mechanization is mainly due to the incorporation of new drying equipment in the fields, rather than to technological changes, as the machinery is basically the same in the nine brands that Agroimec manages.
In general terms, Jose Mery estimates that today about 60% of nuts are harvested in a mechanized form, a scenario similar to that of olive trees, which use similar systems. "There is no possibility of doing it by hand in all the big extensions," he said.
Challenges in berries
Bruno Schmidt still remembers the impact that the first mechanical harvester of raspberries had when he brought it to Chile when he was a manager of a raspberry exporter in the late 1980s. He says he went from needing 1,500 to 600 people in the season.
Today, as manager of Korvan Chile, a company specializing in the mechanization of smaller fruit trees, he believes that the change has been gradual and involves more than just getting machines.
"The first thing is having a very good variety and very good management. The idea that the machines are only for used for refrigerating the fruit is a myth because it also harvests the fruit. If you have a fruit of excellent quality and a variety that is more friendly with the machine you can do wonders... Today all the elements behind a smaller fruit are adjusting to the need for mechanization," he said.
However, many producers do not agree with him.
Looking to adjust to local needs and realities, consultant Felipe Rosas launched a mechanical harvester developed in Chile (Unair), which adapts international technologies to the particular conditions of the country and that will be used for the first time this season, this year. "It's a project that took ten years and its third prototype was already validated by the Corfo," he stated.
Beyond the specific developments and the progress of some producers in mechanization, Jose Mery believes that it hasn't happened on a large scale because, despite the lower availability of labor, its cost is still not as prohibitive and is on par with that of a machine.
"Chile still has that advantage, although we have to be very efficient. Fruit producers who want to simplify things are the ones who are opting for the machines, but its a job that can still be done by people. That is why mechanization in fruit growing, in general, is slower than in the rest of the agricultural sector," he stated.
Source: El Mercurio