Wave of agriculture robotics holds potential to ease farm labor crunch

Robotic apple-picking machines also hold the potential to significantly reduce labor costs for growers in Washington. The state’s vast apple orchards have long faced labor shortages, including when there are record harvests or late starts to the season.

FFRobotics, an Israeli company, is testing its technology in apple orchards in Washington. The company claims on its website that it can help “growers to reduce costs significantly by supplementing or replacing human pickers from the dwindling pool of harvesting labors. FFRobot can precisely and gently pick ten times more usable fruit compared with an average worker.”

Abundant Robotics, a California robotic orchard equipment developer backed by investors such as Tellus Partners and GV — the venture capital investment arm of Alphabet — also sees money in the apple harvest market both in the U.S. and abroad. The company has been testing its vacuum fruit picker this month in Australia and hopes to achieve commercialization later this year.

At the same time, industry executives say the use of global positioning system-based motorized carts that can carry fresh produce from field areas is something that will become popular in the future too since it can free up farm labor. They note the same application is similar to the GPS-driven tractor guidance systems and precision agriculture systems developed by major farm machinery manufacturers, including Europe’s CNH Industrial and U.S. farm equipment giant Deere.

Last year, Deere acquired Blue River Technology, a California-based agriculture tech firm known for its “see-and-spray” robots, for $305 million. The computer vision technology can be used for weeding in cotton and lettuce fields and other specialty crops.

Finally, Canada-based Dot Technology Corp. is working on an autonomous power platform that eliminates the need for a driver and tractor because it carries all the farm implements directly with it. The first implements built were a seeder, sprayer and grain cart — and the technology is expected to hit the market in 2019.

“We kind of classify this is a moon shot,” said Norbert Beaujot, founder and CEO of SeedMaster and inventor and founder of its sister company, Dot Technology. “It’s a disruptive technology that could change agriculture all around the world.”

Added Beaujot: “John Deere and Case New Holland are both working on tractors that are autonomous but this takes many steps beyond that in terms of the efficiencies.”