Welcome the “Lettuce Bot”, the “Grape Bot”, the “Strawberry Bot”
On a windy morning in California’s Salinas Valley, a tractor pulled a wheeled, metal contraption over rows of budding iceberg lettuce plants. Engineers from Silicon Valley tinkered with the software on a laptop to ensure the machine was eliminating the right leafy buds.
The engineers were testing the Lettuce Bot, a machine that can “thin” a field of lettuce in the time it takes about 20 workers to do the job by hand.
The thinner is part of a new generation of machines that target the last frontier of agricultural mechanization – fruits and vegetables destined for the fresh market, not processing, which have thus far resisted mechanization because they’re sensitive to bruising.
Researchers are now designing robots for these most delicate crops by integrating advanced sensors, powerful computing, electronics, computer vision, robotic hardware and algorithms, as well as networking and high precision GPS localization technologies. Most ag robots won’t be commercially available for at least a few years.
On the Salinas Valley farm, entrepreneurs with Mountain View-based startup Blue River Technology are trying to show that the Lettuce Bot can not only replace two dozen workers, but also improve production.
“Using Lettuce Bot can produce more lettuce plants than doing it any other way,” said Jorge Heraud, the company’s co-founder and CEO.
The Lettuce Bot uses video cameras and visual-recognition software to identify which lettuce plants to eliminate with a squirt of concentrated fertilizer that kills the unwanted buds while enriching the soil.
Blue River, which has raised more than $3 million in venture capital, also plans to develop machines to automate weeding – and eventually harvesting – using many of the same technologies.
Another company, San Diego-based Vision Robotics, is developing a similar lettuce thinner as well as a pruner for wine grapes. The pruner uses robotic arms and cameras to photograph and create a computerized model of the vines, figure out the canes’ orientation and the location of buds – all to decide which canes to cut down.
In southern California, engineers with the Spanish company Agrobot are taking on the challenge by working with local growers to test a strawberry harvester.
The machine is equipped with 24 arms whose movement is directed through an optical sensor; it allows the robot to make a choice based on fruit color, quality and size. The berries are plucked and placed on a conveyor belt, where the fruit is packed by a worker.
End of the Migrant Worker
Technology is about to take over America’s fruited plains – robots, it seems, are all the rage down on the farm, and their introduction and spread will make human farm work a thing of the past.
Right now hordes of migrant workers tend to “America’s Salad Bowl,” located in sunny California, as they have for the past 100 years. But the coming machines will usher in the end of an era.
And many farmers are welcoming the technological advances. They see bots as easing the illegal immigration problem, increasing productivity at less cost (which could be passed onto consumers even as farm profits are bolstered), boost quality and provide a more consistent product.
“Almost three-fourths of all U.S. hired farm workers are immigrants, most of them unauthorized. The U.S. food system – particularly fruit and vegetable production – depends on immigrants more than any other sector of the U.S. economy,” says a report by the Bread for the World Institute.
Robots will cost plenty – for the largest farming operations, millions of dollars – but farm operators say the expense will be worth it.
Still, there is much research and development to be done. Right now, bots – machines in general – are clumsy and bulky. They are not always able to detect when fruit and vegetables are ready to be harvested or picked. They can’t always detect between produce and leaves. And they don’t have the dexterity of a seasoned farm worker.
Machinery and machine technology has made farming easier and more efficient for centuries. The development continues.
- Technology will improve much faster than currently estimated
- By the time Congress addresses the illegal immigrant problem, the nature of the problem will have radically changed
Mike “Mish” Shedlock