Iowa Public Television


Robotic Farm Hands Assist Farmers

posted on July 18, 2013

Late this week, Detroit officially became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. While the Motor City used to epitomize American manufacturing might, its finances -- and its neighborhoods – have been devastated by long, slow declines in population and domestic auto production. 

In addition to the fiscal free-fall, 18 percent of Detroit’s workforce is unemployed. That’s more than double the national average.  But things are even worse in some parts of California.    

Scores of towns in the Golden State are enduring unemployment rates well above 20 percent.

And yet, agricultural producers say there is a critical shortage of farm workers. The situation is so dire that some innovators are turning to machines to address a growing labor shortage in the fields.

Robotic Farm Hands Assist Farmers

The future of farming may now be “in the hands” of robots. With advances in technology, computers and robots are able to perform the tasks of factory and office workers, cutting back the need of human workers. 

Engineers from Silicon Valley in California have designed a robot to assist with farming duties. Known as the “Lettuce Bot,” these intelligent machines use video cameras and software that distinguishes “good” lettuce buds from the bad. The bad lettuce buds are eliminated with a small dose of a concentrated fertilizer, which enriches the soil in the process.

Jorge Heraud / CEO, Blue River Technology: “And the nice thing about Lettuce Bot is that it does it automatically, it does it very fast, and it does it in a better way, with more information than a human can.”

Just one Lettuce Bot not only improves production, but it can also inspect an entire field of lettuce in the time it would have taken about 20 workers to do the same job by hand.

Ron Yokota / Farming Operations Manager at Tanimura & Antle: "Labor is getting more difficult to find, and having something automated like this can reduce the amount of people we need to do a field.”

By making fieldwork more efficient and less expensive, robots, like the Lettuce Bot, have the potential to aid in recent labor shortages. They are also expected to produce a consistently better quality product with higher yields. Additionally, farm robots might play a role in lessening the unknowns of immigration reform.

Potential aside, the robots also come with their own set of pitfalls. On top of being clumsy, the machines struggle with distinguishing produce from leaves and branches and inadequately selecting ripe produce.

The biggest challenge with the robots is developing one that can harvest fresh fruit. Engineers at Agrobot are hoping to make these developments by testing their strawberry harvester with local growers in southern California.

Engineers at Blue River Technology also plan to develop machines that automate weeding and harvesting. In addition to BlueRiver, Vision Robotics in San Diegois developing machines similar to the Lettuce Bot, as well as a robotic pruner for wine grapes.

Since robots, like the Lettuce Bot and the strawberry harvester still must undergo further testing, it will likely be several years before they are available for commercial use.

Tags: California developments farm harvesting labor machines robotics robots technology