Some apples you haul this fall may be a part of American history, because they will be the first ones in the U.S. picked by a robot instead of human hands.
Abundant Robotics of Menlo Park, CA, a maker of apple harvesting machines, will partake in Washington state’s next harvest.
Abundant’s picker has been described as having something in common with a really smart Hoover vacuum than a human hand. The robot moves down rows of orchards and uses artificial intelligence with a dash of LIDAR to search for ripe apples. Once spotted, a robotic arm with a vacuum gently sucks the apples from the tree into a bin.
The achievement is a combination of advances in machine learning and robotics, as well as how apple orchards have evolved over the decades. Now apples are grown on trellises similar to tomatoes or cucumbers. Modern apple trees are also smaller, derived from dwarf varietals yielding more per acre and produce fruit more quickly after being planted.
These horticultural leaps have allowed farmers to double their apple yields. They’ve also made the job of picking easier for humans and, now, for robots.
Orchards are now sufficiently uniform and predictable for machines to reliably pick fruit, and canopies are narrow enough for sunlight, the human eye and vision systems to penetrate.
The debut in American follows a rollout in New Zealand, where Abundant started harvesting earlier this year. Abundant has raised $12 million with backing from GV, formerly Google Ventures, among others. The startup formed out of the robotics division at SRI International, a research lab in California.
Abundant’s main competition is Fresh Fruit Robotics, an Israeli startup that’s developing a picker using a claw-like appendage. Both companies have received funding from the Washington State Tree Fruit Research Commission.
That labor shortage has been accompanied by higher wages. In Washington state, the minimum wage is set to jump by $1.50 to $13.50 an hour next year, an increase that could amount to a quarter of a million dollars for a grower that manages 250 acres. The typical American farm worker makes $11.84 per hour.
Washington state accounts for nearly two-thirds of all apples shipped in the U.S. and robots are seen as playing a vital role in harvesting. American ranks second globally in apple production behind China.
Agricultural robot shipments are predicted to increase from the current 60,000 units to more than 727,000 in 2025.