According to Dan Steere, cofounder and CEO of Abundant Robotics , tests carried out in Australia, where it is currently apple-harvesting season, prove that the robot can recognize, and carefully pick, apples as well as humans can. Instead of using pincers, the device sucks the apples from the branch using a vacuum and places them in a driverless transportation vehicle. Further tests are scheduled to be carried out in the U.S. state of Washington in the fall, as reported in the Technology Review published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) . A ten-armed system, capable of picking apples as quickly as ten people, is to be ready for action in 2018. U.S. fruit growers welcome this technology, since seasonal workers who help with the harvest are currently in short supply. Traditionally, harvest workers have predominately come from abroad, but thanks to President Trump’s immigration policy, it’s going to be harder for such workers to gain entry into the United States.
The harvesting robot is also expected to be able to handle other fruits in the future. Its development is financed by corporations including GV (Google Ventures), BayWa AG, Tellus Partners, and Yamaha Motors. Abundant Robotics is a spin-off of the SRI innovation center based in Menlo Park, California and founded by trustees of Stanford University. The first prototype of the harvesting robot was made possible through a US$ 2 million venture capital investment.
It’s not just in the U.S. that agriculture – often the only means of making a living for people in poverty – is facing a serious labor shortage. The World Bank has calculated that crops will need to increase by 50% by 2050 to feed the 9.7 billion people projected to be living by then. Agriculture and forestry are, however, also responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions; the World Bank therefore also expects that climate change will reduce open-land crops by around 25%.