Avocados, mangoes, and apples are on display every morning at the colorful Mahane Yehuda food market in Jerusalem, as well as in many other outdoor and indoor markets across Israel. But what if fruit pickers decided to abandon agriculture and the fruit stands were left empty?
Fewer people work in agriculture globally. Now, Gedera area-based Tevel Aerobotics Technologies says it has come up with an automated flying machine that can do labor-intensive fruit-picking quickly and efficiently, taking over from humans in orchards and greenhouses.
“There is a massive shortage of fruit-picking labor,” Tevel’s founder and CEO Yaniv Maor said. “Around the world, you can see this problem everywhere you go.”
In the US, China, Japan, Europe and elsewhere, Maor said, there is an increasing gap between fruit consumption, which is growing, and farming manpower, which is declining. While farmers invest in land, irrigation, and labor, much of the fruit is left hanging on trees because there are not enough people to pick it. Maor claims to have the solution to this problem, reducing the costs for farmers and increasing the yield of their crops.
The machine uses a gripper-ended mechanical claw to quickly take fruits from trees one by one, and put them in a bin on the ground.
Maor emphasized that the fruit is picked gently “without causing damage or bruising.” Other mechanized picking techniques are not generally suitable to labor-intensive crops like strawberries, which can be easily squashed by a robotized hand.
Powered with an electrical engine, the drone — either 40 or 80 centimeters in diameter depending on the model — is totally autonomous and only needs an operator for inspection, he added.
Tevel’s prototype is able to recognize fruit types according to their size, color, and ripeness, making it sensitive to the kind of fruit is picking. So far, it can detect oranges and many varieties of apples, and will be able to pick many other kinds of fruit in the future, including mangoes and avocados, Maor said.
The drone will also help farmers optimize their farming patterns and boost yields by allowing them to grow taller fruit trees that can be harvested by drone, Maor added.
Tevel hopes to commercialize its first drones in 2020. Maor said the firm has already lined up potential customers in Israel, the US, and China, and is targeting large fruit companies and growers as well as machinery suppliers and harvesting contractors.
He said that the cost of the technology will be competitive and that the company’s immediate market — for apple and orange harvesting in the US and Europe — is worth some $5 billion. The worldwide market for fruit picking amounts to some $500 billion per year, he said.
Tevel Aerobotics Technologies was founded in August 2016 and employs around 15 people. The company has just concluded its second round of investment, raising around $10 million thanks to the support of angel investors, “very well-known industry experts,” including equity crowdfunding platform OurCrowd and Maverick VC, Maor said.