Robot Strawberry Pickers to Replace Humans
It wasn't very long ago that the idea of robots doing everyday tasks was the stuff of science fiction. Robotics were part of a futuristic world where work was unnecessary and everyone lived a life of relaxation and freedom. Automated workers sounded a nice idea but one that was unlikely to happen in my lifetime. But suddenly, all that’s changing, and it won’t result in more leisure time either. The likely spinoff is fewer jobs for unskilled workers and a downward pressure on the wages of those who can find work.
Food and farming contributes 108 billion pounds to the UK economy, propelled by the EU seasonal workers who spread out across fields at dawn to pick daffodils in January, strawberries in summer, apples in September and Brussels sprouts in December.— Reuters 10/13/2016
Fruit Picking and Harvesting Use Unskilled Labor
Farmers around the world face a common problem. Farming is dependent on a crop’s natural cycle; planting, germination, growing and harvesting. Harvest-time needs more labor than when a crop is growing and maturing. So, the farm takes on more workers at certain times of the year. These workers are employed on a temporary, seasonal basis. As the work is unskilled they are paid low wages, often on piecework rates.
Small farmers tend to rely on family and friends to fill the labor gap for harvesting, but large commercial farms must look elsewhere. The work is physically demanding and the pay is poor compared to other jobs. They are therefore filled by those who would struggle to find other employment. These include migrant workers who don’t speak the local language, or illegal immigrants who don’t have the right paperwork to get a secure job.
The (US) government estimates that more than 80% of America's crop workers are Hispanic (mostly Mexican) and more than half are illegal aliens. But Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, considers those numbers grossly misleading because they rely on self-reporting. He estimates that more than 90% of farmworkers are sin papeles (without papers).— The Economist 12/16/2010
Agrobot Automates the Work of Berry Harvesting
What About All-You-Can-Pick Farms?
Many of you will have happy memories of a day spent gathering ripe fruit in a farmer’s field. You will have spent a few hours in the sun, eating half the berries as you picked them. You chose to be there and could leave at will. Your kids played with each other and burned off excess energy. At the end of the day, everyone was tired but happy with their harvest of a few baskets of soft fruit. Picking strawberries to earn a wage is not the same as a Pick-Your-Own family fun day out.
Are you a strawberry picker?
Back-Breaking Work or Life-Changing Opportunity?
The experience of fruit picking on a day or piece rate is back-breaking and exhausting. Workers are paid pennies for each pound of fruit picked. They are penalized if the fruit is the wrong size or stage of ripeness. Many of them need to work 12 to 14 hours to earn enough to pay the rent on their trailer and feed their family. There is no shade in strawberry fields and the pickers spend long hours with the burning sun on their skin.
Alternatively, the crops are grown in polytunnels where temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Rest breaks are few and workers become dehydrated and exhausted. Because many crops are grown at ground level, workers spend all day bending with resulting pain and back-ache. There is also the problem of dermatitis than can result from contact with the pesticides used by commercial growers..
Causes of Soft Fruit Harvest Labor Shortage
Tighter border controls
Fewer illegal migrants
Improving US and UK economy
More and better paid alternative jobs
Downward pressure on prices
Why Does Anyone Choose This Type of Work?
Undocumented and migrant workers come from poorer countries to work as pickers to earn money to send home. They may not speak the local language or be aware of local labor laws. They can be exploited by unscrupulous middlemen who may force them to work long hours for low wages to repay “debts”.
For a few however it is a stepping stone to a better life. They leave behind extreme poverty and hardship. Through hard work and a bit of luck they can master the local language and perhaps gain citizenship and better work opportunities. In the video below, a Mexican woman describes how she is working from the bottom up by picking strawberries in California.
Robots Versus Human Pickers
Immigration controls are tightening the world over and this affects the movement of cheap labor. Farming has relied on migrants to do jobs that are low skilled and poorly paid. There is a growing labor shortage and future crops may be left to rot in the fields as they are uneconomic to harvest. Robotics engineers have therefore been trying to create a machine that’s as good at selecting and picking soft fruit as a human being can be.
There are several issues a robot picking machine needs to address.
- Strawberries are delicate and must be handled gently to avoid bruising.
- The machine must be able to judge the ripeness and color of the fruit. They need to be able to distinguish ready red from unripe green.
- A robot must be able to measure the size and shape of the berries and avoid anything misshapen or diseased.
- The berries of a strawberry plant are often hidden by leaves. The machine must be able to search and find ripe fruit amongst the leaves without damaging any remaining unripe fruit.
Robotic strawberry harvesting machines use high powered computing and vision sensing technology. This is expensive, but once purchased a farmer can make huge savings on labor costs. For example, one machine takes two people to operate but it will replace 10 times that number. Within 5 years many growers expect their harvesting to be almost completely automated. The video below shows how one farmer is investing to automate his soft fruit harvest.