Robots take on farming chores

April 23, 2015

Robots are taking on many jobs—from medical lab diagnostician to writer. Now they are also becoming farmers, according to Ilan Brat, writing in the Wall Street Journal.

Brat notes that farmers have long used machines like combines to harvest commodity crops for animal feed, food ingredients, and ethanol, but such machines can damage the appearance of produce marketed to consumers.

As an alternative, growers of strawberries, for example, can make use of the $100,000 Agrobot, a 16-arm, automated harvester that includes color sensors to separate ripe from unripe fruit. Juan Bravo, inventor of Agrobot, is working on a 60-arm version.

Machines are not just for harvesting. Brat reports that vegetable farmer Tanimura & Antle Fresh Foods Inc. bought a Spanish startup called Plant Tape, which makes a system that transports romaine lettuce seedlings from greenhouse to field. And at Altman Specialty Plants Inc., robots move potted roses around as they grow. Brat quotes Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director, as saying, “This is the least desirable job in the entire company,” adding that with machines, “…there are no complaints whatsoever. The robots don’t have workers’ compensation, they don’t take breaks.”

They do, however, need maintenance, and Brat reports that Agrobot was recently operating with only 14 arms, as two were on the fritz.

The robots can help make up for a worker shortage, Brat writes, which has resulted from increased border security and increased job opportunities in Mexico.

The Journal article (subscription required) includes a slideshow and video.

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