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A $1 million dollar robot is the future of fruit-picking. Each robot will be able to pick more than 25,000 raspberries a day, outpacing human workers who manage about 15,000 in an eight-hour shift, according to Fieldwork Robotics, a spinout from the University of Plymouth.
The robot is on trial in the UK with great success as the farming industry battles rising labor costs and Brexit-related shortages of seasonal workers. Numbers of seasonal workers from eastern Europe have diminished, partly due to Brexit fears but also because Romania and Poland’s surging economies have persuaded their own workers to remain in their home countries .
The robot stands 1.8 meters (approx. 6 ft ) tall. The wheeled machine has 4 robotic arms guided by sensors and 3D cameras, all picking simultaneously, and its grippers zoom in on ripe fruit using machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence. When operating at full tilt, each gripper picks a raspberry in 10 seconds or less and drops it in a tray where the fruit gets sorted by maturity, before being moved into punnets, ready to be transported to supermarkets. And robots don’t get tired, they can pick for 20 hours a day.
Separate field trials in China have shown the robot can pick tomatoes and cauliflower.
Robots are now being used for weeding and planting crops, and milking cows, as part of the long-term trend of automation in agriculture. The Small Robot Company in England is trialing robots that look like spiders on wheels, called Tom, Dick and Harry. They seed, feed, weed and monitor field crops giving them the perfect levels nutrients and support. This will cut chemicals and emissions by up to 95%.
The robots can see every blade of emerging wheat, bumblebee nest, and wormhole. They then analyze this data to determine what remedial action is required. Different crops can be planted alongside each other in the same field, and harvested at different times.
Robots will raise productivity, at a time when UK productivity growth is lagging behind other countries. Analysts attribute this lack of economic efficiency to a shift towards more low-skilled jobs since the financial crisis, a lack of business investment and a decade of austerity. Robots are expected to mainly affect low-skilled jobs. A new cohort of highly-skilled workers will be needed to maintain and debug the machines.
Growers are expressing interest, under pressure from the rising minimum wage, with labor accounting for half of their costs. They have also been spurred into action by a decline in seasonal pickers coming from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland since the UK’s vote to leave the EU in June 2016. Berry and apple growers have been the hardest hit by the labor shortages, and farms have started poaching pickers from each other. Many EU workers are staying away because their earnings have been eroded by the sharp drop in the value of the pound since the referendum.
It is believed the robots can be tweaked to pick other berries, fruit and vegetables. The British Summer Fruits (BSF) trade body, says fruit growers were 15%-30% short of seasonal pickers last summer. There were significant crop losses last year and the year before.
UK farms growing apples, berries and field crops need 70,000 seasonal workers a year. The berry industry alone employs 29,000, but BSF estimates it will need an extra 2,000 pickers by 2020, as people eat more berries. The National Farmers’ Union has recorded more than 6,000 unfilled vacancies on farms so far this year.
The UK is not alone – with a population shift from rural areas to cities, other European countries, the US and China are all struggling to attract enough seasonal workers to harvest their crops. Robots solve this and many other agricultural problems.
As a farmer, I hear lots of jokes about sheep.I’d tell them to my dog but he’d herd them all