Apples are the second most commonly consumed fruit in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but the way apples are harvested in the orchard hasn’t changed much in the past two centuries. It’s still a manual process, by and large.
Now, SRI Ventures, a kind of startup incubator within the Menlo Park research and development firm SRI International, is investing in and spinning out a startup calledAbundant Robotics Inc. to automate apple harvesting with agricultural robots currently in development.
Dan Steere, CEO of Abundant Robotics, says: “While orchard yields have significantly improved over the last two decades, labor productivity has not.
“Our goal is to deliver robotic systems to ease the hardest jobs in agriculture. The first automated apple harvesting system that doesn’t bruise or damage the produce will be a huge breakthrough in an industry that has been dependent on the challenges of seasonal labor.” Three co-founders of Abundant Robotics – Curt Salisbury, Michael Eriksen, and Dan Steere – share the same agrarian background.
The robots were designed to be strong and fast enough to remove one fruit per second from a tree, but gentle enough not to damage trees or the fruit, according to Abundant Robotics’ CEO and co-founder Dan Steere. They employ computer vision to recognize apples on the branch that are ready for harvesting, and a kind of vacuum to remove the apples, Steere said. For power, the robots are plugged into the small tractors already used pervasively in fruit farming.
Steere co-founded Abundant Robotics about a year ago, he says, with CTO Curt Salisbury and Senior Software Architect Michael Eriksen recognizing a massive market opportunity in agriculture. The team had previously worked on research funded by SRI and additional, non-dilutive grants from the Washington Tree Fruit commission to bring automation to the field. Farmers typically produce more than 9 billion pounds of apples domestically, exporting 2.3 billion pounds of them in 2014-2015, according to the USDA. And international consumption of them has been growing. Steere said, “Seeing fruit and picking it without damaging it is the big engineering challenge. If you bruise or cut the fruit it loses its value.” According to SRI Ventures President, Manish Kothari, it had not been possible to automate the task of apple picking before recent breakthroughs in computer vision and image processing were made.
He said, “You direct this robot to go someplace, see and pick an apple, and go again. It’s a very non-trivial engineering challenge. To detect apples very precisely you have to see down at the millimeter level in real time. That requires software, and on the hardware side, chips that allow you to do real time image processing on the fly.”
It was their time together in SRI when they realized the implementation potential of the technology. They joined hands to revisit their upbringing scene, but this time equipped with smarter tools. The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and SRI, has kept the dream fueled with enough funds and the company has now closed its initial round of investment. Initial research attempts by SRI yielded substantial outcomes that eventually introduce novice dimensions to agricultural robotics. The efforts to keep the estimated 7.4 billion global population well-fed, the farm produce has shot for the sky.
On the other hand, labor employment in farms has not gone up by obligatory numbers. In contrast to the concerns of machine as a human replacement, robotics technology in agricultural harvesting is a welcome news. The present archetype from Abundant Robotics sources from SRI’s innovative technology to harvest apples in an orchard. Although, the company plans on diversifying its models to serve other farm products, or extended list of agricultural processes. In the light of current offerings from robotics technology market, this is a major breakthrough for the global stakeholders.