Robotics are being talked up as a solution to labour shortages in horticulture industries around the world. The new technology could replace crop harvesting jobs that farmers are increasingly struggling to fill. Staffing had rapidly become a global challenge for the horticulture industry, Robotics Plus founder Steve Saunders said at a conference in Tauranga. For the first time in New Zealand, the apple and kiwifruit industries had major worker shortages during the harvest.
“Yet both of those industries are in rapid scale-up in terms of production and volumes. That number is only going to get worse as we go forward.” Robotics could play a key role in solving this and other issues the industry faced, he said. “In New Zealand we have health and safety concerns, compliance is lifting and labour costs are starting to increase globally.” The conference was part of Techweek, an annual event showcasing the country’s technology and innovation sectors. Saunders said kiwifruit crops were still being harvested the same way they were 50 years ago.
“I’ve been in the kiwifruit industry for 34 years now and we’re still picking in a bag that I picked in 35 years ago. “There’s been a real disconnect between agriculture and technology for a long time and now the pressure is coming.” Yamaha Motor Ventures chief operations officer George Kellerman said labour shortages were not a problem unique to New Zealand. In California where he is based, labour not water was their biggest concern despite the state recently emerging from a 10-year drought, he said.
“To this day I have never met a grower who has said that water is their number one issue.” The biggest issues were labour shortages and the rising costs of labour, he said. “Many growers said this is putting a cap on future growth.” He said Bay of Plenty kiwifruit growers complained they were short of at least 1200 people for harvest work this year.
“Given the current future trajectory of Zespri’s future growth plans, if they are 1200 short today how many tens of thousands they are going to be short in 10 years. This is a global problem we have to solve.” Two months ago, Yamaha made an equity investment in Robotics Plus. Kellerman said the company invested because the technology was the future of agriculture worldwide, particularly autonomous vehicles, industrial automation and robotics.
The Tauranga based company was in the process of building 20 robotic apple packers for United States growers. They are also developing an orchard robot that could carry out a variety of tasks including harvesting, pollination or precision spraying.
Robotics Plus chief technology officer Alistair Scarfe said their orchard robot was designed to be a machine that carried different systems around depending on the job, similar to a tractor and the implement that went on it. “There’s been a heap of interest over how we can use that across a whole heap of different industries.”
The robot was tested on a Bay of Plenty orchard in May and while it had made good progress towards being ready for the commercial market, it still needed further development. This is because Scarfe had a narrow window to field test the machine during harvest.
“The big challenge for us in the horticulture industry is the seasonality. We get a couple of months to test the harvesting arms and then all of the fruits gone.” He predicted the robot might be commercially available in two years’ time.