Apples are the second most consumed fruits in the United States. Over 322,000 acres of land in the US is used for the production of 240million bushels of apples annually. The revenue earned annually from the wholesale value of the apples is approximately $4billion, with an additional $15billion collected annually in the downstream economic activity including retail sales and value-added products such as Apple Cider Vinegar.
Internationally, it is estimated that apples bring in an annual revenue of $50 billion. However, apple pickers are using the same method that has been used for the past century, a 45-60 pound bag strapped on their backs. This is a pretty exhausting and sometimes slow process that has led to a shrinkage in the pool of labor in apple orchards.
Agriculture tech startups are increasing in number as seen by the level of investment this industry has attracted in recent years. In 2017, ag-tech startups in North America raised more than 320 million dollars. Abundant Robotics, Inc. is an Agritech startup was founded in 2016 and has headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and West Coast. This company has come up with a solution to meet the labor shortage during the apple harvest season, while at the same time reducing the time it takes to harvest apples through automation.
Abundant Robotics Inc. spurned out of SRI Ventures, a nonprofit research institute. Most of the intellectual property was developed at SRI, while some were developed together with robotic labs at Carnegie Mellon University. Abundant Robotic has an agreement on tech transfer with this University.
Apple Picking Robots
So far, Abundant Robotics has raised 12 million dollars for the research and production of agriculture robots. The aim was to create robots that are robust, fast and gentle when picking apples. The most significant engineering challenge has been getting the robots to pick the fruits without damaging them since a small bruise is enough to lead to a loss in value of the apple.
These robots are powered by the small tractors that are already being used in fruit farming. Computer vision has been employed to help the robots identify the apples that are ready for harvesting. The anticipated pace of harvest is one apple per second. Field trials have been conducted in orchards located in Washington State and Australia.
In March 2019, Abundant Robotics announced that its robots would be used for the harvest of apples by one of New Zealand’s largest food producers, T & G Global. This is the first commercial deployment of these robots in New Zealand. T& G Global has reported a lack of seasonal labor which has led to the failure to harvest all apples from the trees. The result has been a loss of revenue and a fall in the number of apples harvested.
These robots pick apples all hours of the day, and they work alongside human workers. It is not expected that the robots will be replacing human labor since careful judgment is still required in the picking of the fruits to minimize damage. At night, the robots are used to pick apples in parts of the tree that are hard to reach.