Currently, the US economy is dealing with the worst labor shortage it has seen in decades. This shortage is hitting nearly every industry, but among the worst hit is the agricultural industry. A recent survey found over half of California’s farmers have started using machines in place of humans to meet their needs in the past five years. One of those machines could be a robot.
New Zealand’s farms have become a prime testing ground for this, as the country tries to tackle labor shortages in its agro industry as well.
The answer to this problem, according to an American start-up called Abundant Robotics, which has teamed up with major food producer T&G Global, is to deploy apple-picking robots.
“We are steadily getting closer to making these robots commercially successful,” Manoj Karkee, an associate professor of biological systems engineering at the Washington State University, told The Daily Beast. “Not having enough labor in the field and feeling that gap is a big challenge right now—where farmers are already facing a tough time getting enough people to harvest their crop.”
Karkee argued that robots picking our produce beyond apples will likely be commonplace in the not-too-distant future. Compared to other fruits, picking apples isn’t the greatest challenge for those who are designing agricultural robots, considering their simple shape and the fact they don’t bruise easily. According to Karkee, developing robotic hands that can properly handle more complex and more delicate fruits is still quite difficult.
Some fruit might also require more than a robotic hand to pull them off the tree. With certain fruits—bananas, for example—designers may have to include a scissor-like instrument to remove the fruit from the tree.
Designing a robot to locate the fruit in the tree’s foliage is another significant obstacle, according to Karkee. But no worries there: Researchers have actually figured out how trees can be grown to bear fruit near the outside of their canopy so robots can more easily harvest them.