Feb 3, 2020

Harvesting tech shows up down on the farm as Brexit labor shortage looms

Autonomous harvesters can't pick as well as humans yet, but they can stay on the job for long hours, into the night.

As it turns out, there are jobs where a human touch is — or has been — irreplaceable. Fruit picking is like that. Soft, delicate fruits must be assessed for ripeness and then gently plucked without smooshing. But in Britain, where one likely effect of Brexit will be a shortage of cheap human labor, there’s a flurry of interest in robots that can do the job.

I spoke with Marketplace’s Stephen Beard, who went to see a robot in action. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Stephen Beard: This is definitely very difficult territory for robotics. These aren’t repetitive movements in a highly structured environment as you would get in a car plant. The environment with fruit growing is very unstructured. The robots have got to find the fruit through a mass of leaves, so it needs stereoscopic cameras to give it a 3D image. It assesses the ripeness of the fruit by measuring its wavelength on the visible spectrum. It needs to deal with fruit of different shapes and sizes, and there’s machine learning going on here. It is pretty difficult.

Jack Stewart: Do these robots move with any speed? I’m imagining them shooting up and down these rows or fruit, arms flinging, grabbing berries, filling baskets.

Beard: They can do that, but they wouldn’t be very effective. They cannot pick as well as humans yet. They’re getting there. They’re picking more slowly than humans, but they can work much longer. What they lack in speed they make up for in stamina. An average human raspberry picker can collect 15,000 berries in an eight-hour day; the robot can harvest 25,000 in a 20-hour day. Slower, but harder working. Robots also pick at night, which is not so easy for humans, and that’s better for the fruit because they’ve been picked at lower temperatures so they can be chilled more easily.

Stewart: How does the cost of these machines work out? I’m guessing they’re expensive to buy, but do they balance out over their lifetime?

Beard: This probably is the major stumbling block in the path of this technology. The Belgian company Octinion, which is probably the most advanced of the European robot developers, won’t say exactly how much they cost, which is never a good sign. They say the cost is comparable with the cost of human picking. But I’ve heard a lot of suggestions that one of these robots could cost as much as $130,000, so it’d be a very hefty price to pay. What Octinion says is that they offer a complete package. They offer to rent out the equipment, and it’s a service deal. They will maintain the robot, they will make sure they will send an operative down to the site to make sure it’s running and to make sure everything is functioning correctly. But one fruit grower that I spoke to said that he didn’t expect robots to become widespread in the United Kingdom or Europe for another decade at least.

Stewart: I suppose the ultimate question is: Will robots ever take over fully from humans in doing these tasks?

Beard: It depends on the supply of labor. One thing you could say is that the technology — and this is an interesting possibility — the technology, which these robot developing companies and startups have been exploring, might have other applications which could be quite valuable. Wherever delicate and precise manipulation of an object or material is required at a distance, the robots would have an application. For example, space exploration, repairing nuclear reactors, bomb disposal. These are, of course, fairly niche activities, but they’re high value. These deft robots would command a very high price. Interesting and ironic, considering that the problem they are designed to solve stems from the relatively low wages that fruit pickers are paid.

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

Automation in farming doesn’t have to just mean robots. There are other ways that tech continues to infiltrate agribusiness. In the U.S., drones can help with monitoring crops and checking for hydration levels so that watering schedules can be adjusted dynamically, and they can even spray pesticides. Autonomous tractors and harvesters can do the monotonous back-and-forth driving over miles of fields. Forbes says farm automation is bringing the high-tech West Coast and rural Rust Belt together. 

As farming tools become increasingly software dependent, the old question of who owns them is cropping up again. Farmers started hacking their tractors as manufacturers like John Deere lock them down to stop what they’d call unauthorized repair work. In interviews with Vice, farmers say that when something breaks down, they can’t always get to a dealer, and they don’t necessarily want to pay for that.

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Molly Wood Host
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