Obsolete Strawberry Farm Workers Being Replaced By Robotic Pickers

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Technocrat engineers build because farmers say Americans don’t want to pick fruit. Seasonal labor used to come from Mexico, but apparently 20 million illegal aliens in America don’t want to pick the fruit either. ⁃ TN Editor

The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll’s and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.

Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, one of the minds behind the television hit “BattleBots,” has invested $3 million of his own money.

The electronic picker is still pretty clumsy.

During a test run last year, Harv gathered 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition.

But Harv doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days. The machine looks like a horizontally rolling semitruck.

Peek underneath and see 16 smaller steel robots scooping up strawberries with spinning, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights.

Growers say it is getting harder to hire enough people to harvest crops before they rot. Fewer seasonal laborers are coming from Mexico, the biggest supplier of U.S. farmworkers. Fewer Americans want to bend over all day in a field, farmers say, even when offered higher wages, free housing and recruitment bonuses.

Human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.

One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries – and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.

The future of agricultural work has arrived here in Florida, promising to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food, or so says the team behind Harv, a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.

Harv is on the cutting edge of a national push to automate the way we gather goods that bruise and squish, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers.

Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.

“The labor force keeps shrinking,” said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. “If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person.”

The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised about $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll’s and Naturipe Farms, as well as from local farmers.

Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, one of the minds behind the television hit “BattleBots,” has invested $3 million of his own money.

The electronic picker is still pretty clumsy.

During a test run last year, Harv gathered 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition.

But Harv doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days. The machine looks like a horizontally rolling semitruck.

Peek underneath and see 16 smaller steel robots scooping up strawberries with spinning, claw-like fingers, guided by camera eyes and flashing lights.

Growers say it is getting harder to hire enough people to harvest crops before they rot. Fewer seasonal laborers are coming from Mexico, the biggest supplier of U.S. farmworkers. Fewer Americans want to bend over all day in a field, farmers say, even when offered higher wages, free housing and recruitment bonuses.

Read full story here…

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