Monday, February 18, 2019

Could new strawberry harvester replace human workers?

One of three side-by-side photos by the Post's Zack Wittman: robotic claws that pick berries, and a hand that just did.
Engineers have been trying without success for decades to create a harvesting machine that can pick easily-bruised crops like strawberries, but a new model from agricultural automation company Harvest CROO Robotics shows promise, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post.

Big ag companies like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms are among funders who have helped raise $9 million to make the machine, nicknamed "Harv." Mechanical harvesting is a longstanding goal, but the incentive is greater now because the labor pool of farm workers is shrinking. Tighter immigration policies mean fewer Central Americans are coming to pick crops, and most Americans refuse to do the work even when offered higher pay, free housing and recruitment bonuses, Paquette reports.

"If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person," third-generation Florida strawberry farmer Gary Wishnatzki told Paquette.

One "Harv" is meant to do the work of 30 people, but it has a ways to go before it can pick as well as humans. "During a test run last year, Harv gathered just 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition," Paquette reports. But Harv has a big advantage over humans: it "doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days."

Paquette starts her story with this description of picking: "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."

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