In general, robots aren’t very good at picking vegetables. Asparagus-picking robots are the exception.
In 2015, Joe Jones, the inventor of the Roomba, classified vegetables by how easy it would be for a robot to pick them. They ranged from asparagus, which grows upwards in single spears, to eggplants, which shelter shyly among their leaves.
Asparagus needs to be picked daily for several months, and harvesting it is stoop labor. Workers have to cut each individual stalk. It is hard to get workers willing to do this work, and asparagus farmers need a lot of them. Robots to the rescue! Several different companies now produce automated asparagus harvesting machines. Asparagus-picking robots are becoming increasingly popular as a means of reducing labor costs as well as meeting the needs of farmers facing a labor shortage.
Some asparagus-picking robots are small and lightweight and some are truck-sized. Some have cameras to identify the stalks ready for plucking while others use machine learning.
One thing that all the machinery has in common is that it can’t pick any faster or better than human beings. In fact, skilled humans can be as much as 10 times faster than robots at this task.
Harvesting vegetables often requires a level of dexterity or judgement that is beyond the capacity of robots, so the fact that machines can pick asparagus nearly as well as humans is a sign of success. Farmers point out that these machines may not be as fast, but they can work longer hours than human workers, and they can do so in the dark.
One British company, Muddy Machines, is working to deploy gangs of its asparagus-picking robots. If they can communicate with one another to ensure efficiency, the robots could be managed by just one human. This would reduce costs and bring asparagus out of the luxury foods category.