Robotic apple pickers 6

A robotic vacuum tube sucks apples from trees and whisks them into a bin on an Abundant Robotics harvester in New Zealand.

In 10 years, the labor shortage in U.S. agriculture will be a thing of the past.

Think about that statement. If the supply of labor were to match the demand in orchards, dairies, nurseries and processing plants, U.S. agriculture will have entered a new era.

Call it the Era of Robotics.

“I believe we are at a tipping point where over the next 10 years robotic harvest will become the norm,” Dan Steere, Abundant Robotics co-founder and CEO, told EO Media Group reporter Dan Wheat.

Abundant Robotics this spring ushered in the era for apples. One of the company’s machines was used to harvest an orchard in New Zealand this spring.

The robot meticulously worked its way through the orchard, vacuuming apples off trees that were trained to trellises and whisking them into bins.

This step toward a mechanized apple harvest follows on the heels of self-propelled picking platforms that allow pickers to leave their ladders at the shed and instead motor through orchards. The mobile platforms increased production of pickers, requiring fewer of them and easing the shortage.

Robotics have also gained popularity at many dairies, where cows decide for themselves when they need to be milked. The robots not only clean and milk the cows, but take their temperatures and screen them for production and indicators of illnesses. If a cow presents any symptoms, she is automatically separated from the herd and a veterinarian is notified.

The driver for the research that led to these breakthroughs is the increasing shortage of farm labor. In orchards and dairies, the shortages have been particularly vexing. The need for farmworkers in both types of operations is massive. Dairies must milk cows two or three times a day in addition to growing feed and tending the herds. In orchards, harvest and pruning trees are labor-intensive operations.

The labor needs have forced many farmers to look abroad for help. Using the federal H-2A foreign guestworker program, they hire and bring help from countries such as Mexico. Last year, Washington apple growers alone hired 24,862 guestworkers. Nationwide, about 242,762 H-2A guestworkers were brought into the U.S. because farmers have no other way to get their crops harvested. And it’s not cheap: the federal government requires farmers to pay for transportation and housing, in addition to paying them a higher wage.

The economics alone make robotics more attractive. A robot can work 24/7 with no breaks. And now it is becoming more technologically attractive, and companies such as Abundant Robotics, based in California, and FFRobotics, based in Israel, are engaged in a “space race” of sorts to bring robots into the world’s apple orchards.

As the robots get faster and better, they will revolutionize the apple industry, just as they are doing for the dairy industry. Other types of agriculture, from asparagus to strawberry farms, are also ripe for robotics. Any farm that requires a lot of labor to do repetitive tasks is a prime prospect for robotics.

This is the dawn of an exciting new era for agriculture, and for anyone who eats.

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