Are robots the answer to the agricultural job shortage?

Agriculture is embracing new algorithm-driven harvesting technologies with robotic arms.

January 25, 2018

Most conversations on workplace automation (a la the mechanical replacement of pizza chefs or cashiers), are accompanied by an alarmist, but valid, question: “Will a robot take my job?”

But in the case of the agriculture industry, robots are actually “working” jobs that don’t exist.

In the past decade, fruit and vegetable growers have faced a shortage of pickers — and now, farms across America are increasingly leveraging new technology to fill the void.

Nobody wants to pick fruit

The American farming industry has seen its workforce of pickers dwindle by an astonishing 20% since 2002.

Tightened immigration and worker visa laws have crimped the flow of farm laborers from Mexico and Central America, and despite rising wages from the fallout, American workers still aren’t interested in picking fruit.

AgTech companies have been working on robot pickers for years, but the machines have come with massive challenges: turns out, it’s not so easy to reliably identify fruit and remove it without causing cosmetic damage.

But as tech advances, these bots are nearing reality

Researchers in Washington state are developing algorithm-heavy robots that are capable of “vigorously shaking” cherry trees in a way that safely extracts about 90% of the fruit.

It’s not an isolated effort: Abundant Robotics produces suction-based bots that “duplicate the dexterity, judgment and perception of human apple pickers.” LettuceBot automatically detects and eliminates weeds, and AgroBot picks strawberries with increasing accuracy.

And at least for now, these bots aren’t replacing jobs; they’re alleviating a shortage.

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