One of the biggest problems for produce growers is that robots can’t yet identify the difference between a leaf and an apple. Unlike parts in a factory where they are all identical, fruits grow in different sizes, shapes, and colors and this inconsistency baffles robots. They simply can’t pick out which apple on a tree is ripe for picking and where it is on the tree, especially when it’s covered by the canopy. But that all might change soon.
Robotics developers are working towards a better robot for picking fruit that solves these issues and works with humans to increase production. They’re looking to reduce manpower by 90% and say that anything else won’t be as successful. It might be available commercially in about ten years but the main concern is just how much money producers can save with picker robots.
“If we don’t get labor use reduced 50% or 60% off the current level,” says Manoj Karkee, an assistant professor with the Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems at Washington State University who received the grant to work towards a better picker robot, “growers won’t be very interested in it.”
While in manufacturing , companies often have to figure in things like healthcare costs and labor union benefits like pensions, produce farms and orchards have different situations because of the seasonal nature of their work. Even with Affordable Healthcare Act changes, seasonal workers will still be among the least expensive workers.
So the question becomes, what is the threshold for when robotics becomes more profitable than human workers? Karkee says that for produce companies, a savings of 50-60% is what is needed to create attractive robots. In other industries the threshold might be significantly lower because the overall costs are much higher for each human worker.
There are other reasons to go for automation — sustainability, safety and comfort of human workers, and higher levels of speed and accuracy — but it often comes down to the bottom line.