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Will Fruit Picking Robots Transform the Agricultural Industry?

Will Fruit Picking Robots Transform the Agricultural Industry?


Will Fruit Picking Robots Transform the Agricultural Industry?

Article by: Hari Yellina

Robots are capable of a great deal. Automobiles are manufactured in factories. In Amazon warehouses, they sort items. Robotic dogs can reportedly make us safer by patrolling our streets, which seems a little creepy. However, there are some tasks that robots are currently unable to perform — tasks that appear to be fairly simple in comparison. It’s similar to plucking an apple from a tree. According to robotics researcher Joe Davidson, “it’s a straightforward thing” for humans. “We could close our eyes and reach into the tree, you and I.” We could look around, touch things, and remark things like, “Hey, that’s an apple, and the stem is up here.” Twist and pull. All of this could be accomplished without even looking.”

Developing a robotic tool that can pick up an apple and dump it into a container without destroying it is a multimillion-dollar project that has taken decades to complete. Various approaches have been tried by teams all across the world. Some people have devised suction devices to harvest fruit from trees. For inspiration, Davidson and his colleagues looked to the human hand. They started by studying professional fruit pickers, and now they’re trying to recreate their dexterous actions with robotic fingers. Their technology has the potential to alter agriculture by making fruit-picking — a physically demanding and time-consuming human chore – more efficient and less taxing on farm employees.

Researchers have recently emphasised the increasing conditions for farm labourers as a result of the climate issue, including high heat and wildfire smoke, as well as a labour shortage in the aftermath of the pandemic. Better working conditions and worker safety may be possible as a result of the technology. However, farm labour unions claim that the outcome is contingent on how robots are placed in fields. While AI-based agricultural robotic equipment have advanced significantly in recent years, they are generally employed for weeding, monitoring soil moisture and other field conditions, or planting soybeans with remote-controlled tractors. “However, when it comes to doing physical labour like pruning trees or gathering fruit, people still do it today,” Davidson says.

Both the orchard and the apple must be upgraded in order to teach robots to do these jobs. Traditional orchards, with their unevenly shaped trees and massive canopy, are far too difficult for algorithms to parse and process. The limitations of computer vision are exacerbated by shifting sunbeams, fog, and clouds. Even human pickers have trouble with tangled, tall ancient trees, and wind-up spending most of their time lugging and setting ladders rather than selecting fruit. Many growers have switched to orchards, where trees grow flat against trellises, their trunks and branches at right angles to create a “wall of fruit,” according to Scott Jacky, president of Red Roof Consulting, a firm that assists farmers with technology optimization. The smaller canopy also allows more light in, which encourages the formation of fruits.

Human fruit pickers can glide over rows of trees in couples on slowly rolling platforms in trellised orchards. One person bends down to obtain low-hanging fruit, while the other reaches for higher branches. Picking an apple takes roughly two seconds for professionals working this way. The Davidson lab’s robot, which is essentially a huge arm mounted on a rolling platform, moves in around five seconds. The robotic arm reaches up with its three-fingered palm for the fruit – actually a plastic apple produced for testing purposes – at the touch of a key. Individual motors attached to tendons that drive its fingers are hidden beneath a cushiony silicone “skin” on its fingers.

The fruit-picking robot has succeeded in plucking an apple roughly half of the 500 or so times it has attempted. Despite this, the robotic arm has solved some of the challenges that had previously prevented automation. It can, for example, avoid injuring both fruit and tree branches while harvesting. Because of rapid advancements in computers, Davidson and others believe that robots will be able to operate on farms over the next five to ten years. The United States government is betting heavily on this technology. The AgAID institute, a new entity that supports numerous researchers, including Davidson, in their attempts to build artificial intelligence-backed tools for agriculture, received $20 million in financing from federal funding agencies just last year.

People will still have jobs, according to proponents of harvest automation, such as training and running the robots. “There will be a lot of duties where robotic equipment and digital gadgets will have to cooperate with humans,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, director of the AgAID institute and professor at Washington State University. “This will really strengthen humans since it will provide them with new skill sets.” For the time being, many farm labourers are unsure how the robots will influence their livelihood. “They can truly be a support system for employees and enhance work standards if they’re used appropriately,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, a Latinx farm workers’ organisation in Oregon.

However, Lopez and others claim that they have not yet been involved in discussions about fruit-picking robots. They claim that “farm labourers have not been placed at the centre of any of these talks in the past.” Waves of automation have resulted in job losses and a devaluing of human labour in a variety of industries, including agriculture. “What happens to low-wage workers in the aftermath of such moves are that people lose their jobs,” Lopez adds. According to Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, “the introduction of robotic farm labourers could even provide an opportunity for people to engage in different – and considerably less arduous – tasks than pruning or harvesting.” “There are a lot of people in rural places who, even if they wanted to, don’t want to.” “When the physical part is removed, these occupations become more accessible to older workers or others who are less physically capable of lugging ladders and other heavy equipment.” It allows more people to become involved in this activity.”