Robotics in Agriculture
Experts expect early adopters of automation will begin to take the lead in the food industry.
By Janice Hoppe-Spiers
The agricultural workforce is aging. The most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture in 2012 reported the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57 and the share of farmers 65 years and older has increased from 14 percent in 1945 to 30 percent in 2007.
With an aging workforce and a shortage of younger people coming into the industry, where do farmers turn? Robotics. “People don’t want to work in the fields anymore,” says Bob Pitzer, co-founder of Harvest CROO. “There are not a lot of young people willing to go out and do it.”
During the United FreshTEC Conference in June, industry experts came to Chicago to discuss how automation is becoming a viable alternative in field, packing and processing applications. Soft Robotics Director of Business Development Dan Harburg said during the conference that the company’s grippers and control systems, for example, can manipulate items of varying size, shape and weight with a single device.
Because every product in the food industry is different, Soft Robotics’ grippers are made for variability. The robots learn, too. “The system gets smarter and doesn’t have to be trained,” Harburg added.
The human factor plays a role with picking and packaging produce. “You can show a ripe berry to someone and everyone will pick different ones, but a machine will pick the same quality every time,” Pitzer noted.
Strawberry fields are very labor intensive and farmers struggle to not only find workers, but keep up with the cost of labor. “A field needs to be picked every three days and about 40 times a season,” Pitzer explained. “Robots can pick berries at the optimum time and during the cooler parts of the day and night. GPS technology can be used to track the highest yield plant, as well as check for disease and bugs.”
In contrast, strawberry field laborers pick between six a.m. and noon, so the berries are hot and rushed into coolers. With automation, harvesters can run for 20 hours during the day and night and berries come in at a steady rate. This means farmers don’t have to cool them all at once and reduces energy usage.
Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory Silicon Valley COO and General Partner George Kellerman said there are efficiencies to be gained with automation. “Robots can pick at night and pick the same quality product every time,” he added. “With labor costs, it’s almost a matter of survival for these industries.”
Compac is the world leader in complete turnkey sorting and packing solutions for the fresh produce industry. The company built an automated line in a cherry packing facility that would normally require 16 people, but required no laborers, CTO Ken Moynihan said. “We introduced the technology to the industry and the whole industry changed in three years,” he added.
Compac’s automation line is a value-added service because buyers want quantity and consistency, which they can get from automation.
What’s the one problem these companies continue to tackle today? Sanitation. Although equipment like Soft Robtics’ grippers are made of FDA compatible materials for food handling applications, the industry says there is still a long way to go in terms of food safety and automation.
“It’s very difficult and there’s no silver bullet,” Moynihan said. “A core focus of ours and the industry is to make food that’s clean and sanitized. It’s an evolution the industry will go through.”
Moving forward, Harburg predicts that the early adopters of robotics will begin to pull away from the pack, taking the lead by 2020. “We are excited by small experiments and other companies who have robotic engineers on staff,” he added. “By 2050, production will be done more indoors as costs mount and there is a lot of automation to come.”