WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Jobs that require precision and dexterity have long been protected against automation because robots could mimic the behaviour of humans accurately or fast enough, but now all that’s changing.
Harvesting Washington State’s vast fruit orchards each year requires thousands of temporary farmworkers, but that could all change dramatically as at least two new robotics companies rush to get fully autonomous, robotic fruit picking machines to market. And, unlike their human co-workers they don’t get tired and they work 24 hours a day.
“Human pickers are getting scarce,” said Gad Kober, a co-founder of Israel based FFRobotics, “young people do not want to work in farms, and elderly pickers are slowly retiring.”
FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, California, are two of the companies who are racing to get their mechanical pickers to market within the next couple of years.
The majority of harvests, such as wheat, corn, green beans, tomatoes and many other crops have been mechanised for years, decades even, but for more fragile, and arguably fiddly, produce like apples, berries, grapes and lettuce, where the crop’s appearance is especially important, have remained stubbornly resistant – in part because, up until recently, the technology simply hasn’t been available. But now new advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Vision and robotics are helping companies overcome the hurdles that once kept them at bay.
Members of the $7.5 billion annual Washington agriculture industry have long grappled with labour shortages, and today many of them depend on workers coming up from Mexico each year to harvest the crops, and now, worker shortages, which might be compounded by the new Trump administrations new immigration policies, seems to have many farmers looking for alternatives.
“Who knows what this administration will do or not do?” said Jim McFerson, head of the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Center in Wenatchee, “for farmers this is a question of survival.”
Washington leads the nation in the production of apples and several other important crops, and their harvest starts in the spring with asparagus and runs until all the apples are off the trees in late fall. The work is hard and dangerous, and as a result experienced pickers, who are paid by the bin, can make more than $200 a day. Unsurprisingly though advocates for farmworkers say robot pickers will have a negative effect and they’ll be right of course, but as they say “you can’t stop the march of progress…” and that will be little comfort to the low skilled pickers who rely on harvests for their incomes.
“The eventual loss of jobs for humans will be huge,” says Erik Nicholson, an official with the United Farm Workers Union, “our members are scared of losing their jobs to mechanisation,” he adds, “and a robot is not going to rent a house, buy clothing for their kids, buy food in a grocery store or reinvest that money in the local economy.”
While the cost of the new robotic fruit pickers isn’t available both the companies involved say that they should pay for themselves within just two years, which puts the likely cost of the machines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
FFRobotics machine has a three fingered grip that can grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch, and has at least twelve robotic arms which means, according to the company, it will be able to pick up to 10,000 apples a day. And that’s a lot… the company envisions that the machine could pick up to 90 percent of the crop with humans picking the remainder. Meanwhile, Abundant Robotics’ product uses a different approach and they’ve designed a robo-picker that uses suction to vacuum apples off trees.
Both companies want their robo-pickers on the market by 2019.
“Both companies will have their prototypes in the field this fall,” said Karen Lewis, a Washington State University cooperative extension agent who’s studied the issue, “and both of them look like they will be game changers. But for the machines to work, apples and other crops must be grown in new trellis systems that allow robots to see and harvest the fruit.”
“We are evolving the tree architecture and apple placement to be compatible with robotics,” she added – a process they call “Robot-ready.”
Large farming operations will likely be the first to adopt the machines, but it might be decades before their use is widespread.
“I think for the next 10 to 20 years, they will be used by some growers to supplement regular picking crews and to serve as a backstop for picker shortages,” said Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League in Yakima, “and reliability and cost will determine if their use expands.”
Meanwhile Republican US Rep. Dan Newhouse, whose family owns a large farming operation in Washington’s Yakima Valley, said the industry is deeply interested in alternatives to human labour.
“We are absolutely looking at ways we can increase our efficiency,” said Newhouse, adding his family’s farm each year employs some 120 farmworkers, many of them picking cherries and nectarines.
“The industry has no choice but to embrace mechanisation,” said Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, a trade group for farmers in Yakima, “we don’t see some miraculous new source of labour appearing on the horizon, and we think labour will continue to be a scarce resource. These solutions solve that problem.”
Picking, that last bastion of the warehouse worker, and of the fruit picker, now looks inevitably like it’s going to fall into the “hands” of the robots, and it’s simply one more profession in a long list of professions, from customer services and equities traders to professional drivers that’s going to vanish. Hopefully your job won’t be next… but I’d urge you to look at the writing on the walls. In short, the consensus is that if you can describe your job in one sentence then you can automate it.