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Wanted: Robot fruit-picker

An example of a robotic arm trimming a grape vine. The final cutting arms will be similar to this one.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: Immigration officials have lost the element of surprise in their latest offensive against illegal immigrants. Reports have been all over the media since late last week that the Department of Homeland Security is putting the finishing touches on a plan to force companies to fire workers who falsify their identity documents.

Farmers could be among the hardest hit, dependent as they are on immigrant labor. California fruit growers are plowing cash into the development of a new kind of workforce. One that never gets tired, doesn't ask for raises and doesn't need green cards. Just the occasional oil change.

From the Marketplace Innovations Desk, Andrew Phelps at KPBS in San Diego has the story.


Andrew Phelps: Before we get into the future of farming, here's a sense of what fruit growers deal with now.

Ted Batkin is a citrus farmer in Visalia, Calif.:

Ted Batkin: The biggest problem we have is that pickers have to go up a ladder into a tree that may be 16, 17 feet high. And they're carrying a picking bag that . . . we now have lowered the weight down to about 38 pounds.

That's dangerous, and really exhausting. Batkin says agriculture is losing workers to other sectors — like construction, where the labor is less challenging.

And the national immigration debate is threatening his labor pool. A new report from the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California says 80 percent of the state's day laborers are undocumented workers — most of them from Mexico.

That's pushing Batkin to look at a cyber-solution.

Batkin: We've been looking at robotics for 30 years, and it's only been in the last two or three years that the technology has been sufficient to make it effective. We have faster computers, we have a better understanding of hydraulics and mechanics.

Batkin's also president of California's Citrus Research Board, which has invested a half-million dollars into the technology. The Washington state apple industry has invested more than a quarter million.

Derek Morikowa is the man making "agrobots" a reality. He's a robot designer in San Diego and CEO of Vision Robotics. He says robots working in teams will soon be able to "map out" an entire orchard.

Derek Morikowa: We scan the trees with our robotic vision. We locate the position of each piece of fruit in three dimensions very, very accurately, to within a centimeter or a few centimeters.

Morikawa says robotic vision can even figure out if the fruit is ripe enough for picking. That's the job of the robotic "Scout." The Scout then talks to the "Harvester," a big machine that looks like an octopus. Its mechanical arms pluck the fruit delicately enough to avoid bruising it.

Phelps: So how far are we from robots that take over the world?

Morikawa: Hahaha . . .

Sure, he sounds diabolical. But Morikowa says he's really not. He says he doesn't want to take away human jobs. He says he won't even take on a project unless he can do it for half the cost of fielding a manual labor team.

Jack King: Well, it seems a little space-ageish to have machines in orchards, but you know, I think we'll get used to that.

That's Jack King. He represents California's Farm Bureau Federation in Washington. King says California tomato farmers were struggling 25 years ago, so they turned to technology.

King: At that point, the University of California developed both a machine and a new variety of tomatoes that would lend themselves to machine harvest. As a result of that, we saved an industry. We're now major world producers for processed tomatoes.

King says he wants more funding for robot research. But immigration reform still tops the Farm Bureau's agenda.

Farmer Ted Batkin in Visalia says robots will never replace people on his farm.

Batkin: We don't anticipate building a machine that's better than they are. There is nothing that is as efficient as a human picker.

Batkin says it'll be at least four more years and $5 million of research before these robots are working side-by-side with humans.

In San Diego, I'm Andrew Phelps for Marketplace.

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