Farmworker vs Robot
Agricultural workers of the future may soon be made of tech and steel. Can a robot pick a strawberry better, faster, and cheaper than a seasonal farmworker?
Both human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils.
One February afternoon, they work about an acre apart on a farm the size of 454 football fields: dozens of pickers collecting produce the way people have for centuries — and a robot that engineers say could replace most of them as soon as next year.
The future of agricultural work has arrived here in Florida, promising to ease labor shortages and reduce the cost of food, or so says the team behind Harv, a nickname for the latest model from automation company Harvest CROO Robotics.
Harv is on the leading edge of a national push to automate the way we gather goods that bruise and squish, a challenge that has long flummoxed engineers.
Designing a robot with a gentle touch is among the biggest technical obstacles to automating the American farm. Reasonably priced fruits and vegetables are at risk without it, growers say, because of a dwindling pool of workers.
“The labor force keeps shrinking,” said Gary Wishnatzki, a third-generation strawberry farmer. “If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person.”
The problem is so pressing that competitors are banding together to fund Harv, which has raised approximately $9 million from corporate behemoths like Driscoll’s and Naturipe Farms, as well as local farmers.
Wishnatzki, who created Harv with former Intel engineer Bob Pitzer, one of the minds behind the television hit “BattleBots,” has invested $3 million of his own money.