Harvest Automation makes robots for commercial nurseries. They pick up plants and move them around, a job currently done mostly by migrant workers.
Harvest Automation makes robots for commercial nurseries. They pick up plants and move them around, a job currently done mostly by migrant workers. - 
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If you want a glimpse into the future, check out the action in a drab warehouse in Billerica, Mass. That’s where a start-up called Harvest Automation is working out new robots that could wipe out an entire category of agricultural labor.

Harvest sells small, battery-powered robots that move potted trees and shrubs around in a plant nursery. The idea is to create enough space between each of the pots so that the plants have room to grow. “It gets pretty grueling” says inventor Joe Jones.

In fact, right now in the U.S., migrant  laborers -- some legal, some not -- do this sort of work. But recent crackdowns on illegal labor and the expense and hassle of hiring workers through a federal guest worker program have left many nursery owners searching for a solution to their labor problem.

Harvest’s Jones, who helped invent the Roomba, a robot vacuum cleaner, says they traveled the country talking to farmers and nursery owners before they decided what kind of agricultural robot to create.When they saw workers straining to move heavy pots around in a nursery in Sudbury, Mass., the light bulb went on. “We watched a bunch of people doing this job and we thought, if we can’t build a robot that does this, we’re in the wrong business,” Jones says.

Tom Demaline of Willoway Nurseries in Avon, Ohio, just bought four of the robots at $30,000 each. He figures if they last beyond a year and a half, they’ll pay off. He says his ultimate goal is to get more efficient and cut labor costs. He says the housing bust halted growth in the nursery business so he needs to cut spending.

“It really comes down to having the robots when you need them and putting them away for the winter when you don’t,” Demaline says.

Inventor Jones says the next step is to make robots that can prune and fertilize plants. After that, perhaps a robot that can pick crops.

“We might go to something that resembles a pot,” Jones says. “Maybe pumpkins or melons or something like that. After you have learned to do that, then you can go step-wise through more and more challenging crops. And eventually we will get to the strawberries, the citrus and the apples, but we’re not starting there.”

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Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner