In the orchards of Central Washington, a new kind of technology is revolutionizing the fruit tree industry. One of the robots being tested is 14 feet tall and has six mechanical arms with suction cups at the end for gently removing apples with minimal damage. On-board stereo cameras act as the robot’s eyes, ensuring that it chooses only the ripest, healthiest apples.
Orchardist Kent Karstetter is a firm believer that technology has an important role to play in the progress of farming, and sees robots as a necessary part of the future.
“This robot can work 24 hours a day,” he said. “That can help us get the job done.”
The agricultural industry is feeling the strain of labor shortages due to stricter policies limiting the number of migrant workers, rising labor costs, and fewer young people pursuing careers in farming. To combat this problem, many commercial farmers are turning to robots.
“The younger generation doesn’t aspire to be an apple picker,” Karstetter said. “Right now … we’re treading water, trying to figure out how we can keep enough employees to get our crops picked until this technology evolves.”
Washington produces a lot of crops, but none more than apples. In fact, the state harvests nearly 12 billion apples yearly — more than any other state in the country.
“And each and every one of those pieces of fruit is picked by hand,” explained Matthew Whiting, Washington State University professor and tree physiologist. “Concerns over the availability of skilled harvest laborers remain at the top of most growers’ minds.”
According to Whiting, the industry is beginning to see robotics as a long-term option for filling the labor gap.
Suction cup me that apple, please?
California-based robotics company Advanced Farm is one of a handful of robotics companies conducting field tests in Central Washington. The company’s flagship robotic apple harvester is powered by a main computer that independently controls the motion of six surprisingly nimble arms.
Each arm is equipped with a suction cup on the end, which eliminates bruising during the picking process. Built-in cameras locate each apple and assess whether it’s ripe enough to pick. After all of the apples in a given area have been harvested, the robot moves forward and repeats the process.
Advanced Farm Systems Engineering Manager Michael Corsetto grabs one of the idle robot’s arms to demonstrate its dexterity.
“You’ll notice that it can go in and out, side to side. It can twist up and down,” he explained. “And then when it sees an apple it wants, it’ll go into the canopy and pick the apple with the suction cup and then return.”
The robot drops the apples into a conveyor system that brings them to a human operator who manually clips the stems. Stem removal is necessary to prevent the apples from being punctured as they’re packed into crates and prepped for distribution, but right now robots can’t do that work.
“It’s one of the many examples of how impressive the human is at identifying an apple, reorienting it, placing a trimmer in the proper spot, and clipping the stem,” Corsetto said. “It seems really simple, but it’s an incredibly complicated task and it’s something that we’re gonna need to solve going forward.”
Twisting the mechanical arm
Students at Washington State University’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center are working behind the scenes developing robots to assist in apple cultivation. Biological and agricultural engineering student Uddhav Bhattarai is programming a robotic arm to trim apple blossoms, a simple task for humans but relatively complex for a robot.
Attached to the arm is a device called an end effector, which Bhattarai has equipped with a motor, spindle, and trimmer string – almost like a tiny weedwhacker. A stereo camera that processes three-dimensional images allows the arm to pinpoint each flower. The arm has several hinge points allowing it to move like a human arm.
“Based on the information from the camera, we detect where the flowers are located, and then based on the depth information we determine the position of the flower,” Bhattarai explains. “And we actuate the motor to conduct the thinning so it will eventually rotate once it reaches a desired location.”
Flower trimming is an essential part of apple cultivation. Not only does it improve apple quality, but it significantly increases the probability of an annual crop. It’s repetitive functions like this that engineers hope to one day automate so that humans can focus on more productive and complex tasks.
It’s a bird … it’s a plane … it’s a flying autonomous robot!
Not all the robots being tested work from the ground. Israeli robotics company, Tevel Aerobotics, has developed a robot that consists of eight autonomous flying drones. Mounted to each is a small rod with an attached suction cup. Cables tether the drones to a long, flat conveyor — like floating tentacles. As the swarm of drones moved through an orchard plucking apples off the trees, the entire scene looked like something out of an H.G. Wells novel.
The harvester is outfitted with sensing technology that determines the location and ripeness of each apple. When the fruit is ready for picking, it uses the suction cup to pluck apples off the tree.
“The robots are equipped with a range of advanced sensors enabling the high precision needed in pinpointing each fruit,” explained Tevel General Manager, Ittai Marom. “With a suction-based picking method that incorporates a gentle twisting motion, mimicking the precision of manual picking, our robots delicately remove each fruit from the tree and deliver it to the bin.”
Advanced Farm Software Engineer Roshan Bal envisions a future where humans and robots work together in orchards and farms.
“I think 10 years from now, a good vision would be that machines could harvest maybe a majority of the fruit, and then there’d be a smaller labor crew that could feasibly finish up the rest,” Bal speculated. “I think a combination of both humans and machines would be a great future.”
Are we being replaced?
From AI chatbots to hydrogen-powered vehicles, technological innovation has seen quite a surge in the early 2020s. One of the fastest-growing sectors in the tech industry has been robotics.
Currently, humans are still faster and more efficient than most robot pickers, but that gap narrows with each passing year. Rafael Moreno, an orchard manager in Central Washington, has witnessed the effect robots have had on his farm workers.
“The machine coming makes me surprised because we’ve never seen that before,” Moreno said. “The pickers say, ‘Well, in the future we’re not gonna have a job.’”
The majority of workers in Washington’s fruit tree industry travel from Latin America on temporary work visas. But Moreno admits that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find workers in Mexico, his home country.
“We’ve been short in help. It’s not like before when everybody wants to work,” Moreno said. “Right now, the young kids they’re looking for a lot of easy jobs. So I think the robots, they’re gonna help more doing the labor, you know, in the orchard.”
One thing is clear: There’s a growing robotics trend in orchards and farms across the country, and pretty soon the technology will simply be too appealing for most farmers to ignore.