Robots have taken over many of America’s factories. They can explore the depths of the ocean, and other planets. They can play ping-pong.
But can they pick a strawberry?
“You kind of learn, when you get into this — it’s really hard to match what humans can do,” says Bob Pitzer, an expert on robots and co-founder of a company called Harvest CROO Robotics. (CROO is an acronym. It stands for Computerized Robotic Optimized Obtainer.)
Any 4-year old can pick a strawberry, but machines, for all their artificial intelligence, can’t seem to figure it out. Pitzer says the hardest thing for them is just finding the fruit. The berries hide behind leaves in unpredictable places.
“You know, I used to work in the semiconductor industry. I was a development engineer for Intel, and it was a lot easier to make semiconductor chips,” he says with a laugh.
Pitzer’s strawberry-picking robot is about to meet its latest test. It’s rolling, ever so slowly, into a strawberry field near Duette, Fla.
This contraption drives itself. It’s as big as a bus, long enough to to straddle a dozen rows of strawberries at once. Powerful computers are sitting on top. Underneath, there are high-definition cameras to find the berries, and an array of robotic claws ready to pick them.
“Nobody’s telling it what to do,” explains Paul Bissett, the chief operating officer of Harvest CROO Robotics. “It’s remembering its path down the row. It’s remembering where all these plants are.”
It knows all this, thanks to super-accurate GPS. Its computer brain contains a map showing the exact locations of every strawberry plant in the field. When it gets to a strawberry plant, bright lights flash; cameras spin in a circle.
“They’re creating stereo images of the strawberries as they’re spinning around,” Bissett says. “When it finds one — you just saw the claw reach down, grab it.”
The dance of machinery is truly impressive, but I notice that the baskets are still practically empty. The robot really isn’t picking many berries.
Are the berries thwarting technology? Bissett says no: For this demonstration, he says, they’ve programmed the machine to grab just one berry per plant.
Pitzer says the robots are able to find and pick more than 50 percent of the ripe berries. That’s not yet up to human standards. A typical work crew, he says, manages to pick anywhere from 60 to 90 percent of the berries that it should.
Also, he admits, the machine is slower than human hands. On the other hand, it has some advantages. It can work right through the night, when berries are cooler and less fragile.
Another two years, he says, and this machine will be in the fields working for real. “There’s quirks to work out, but it’s getting there. We’re close,” he says.
Strawberry companies representing two-thirds of the industry are putting millions of dollars into this project. Gary Wishnatzki, the owner of Wish Farms, got the whole thing started. The reason, he says, is that it’s getting more and more difficult to find enough people to pick his berries.
“The fact of the matter is, if we don’t solve the problem of this labor shortage with automation, the industry’s up for a big challenge ahead. The price of fruit’s going to be much higher,” he says.
Way down at the other end of this field, the real harvest is underway. Workers are bent over strawberry beds. Their hands are flying, plucking berries from vines, dropping them into clear plastic packages, running those packages to a waiting truck. They’re putting the machine to shame.
I ask Jose Santos, the crew leader, whether he thinks robots will do this work someday. He smiles. “Hey, it could happen! Put a man on the moon, didn’t we?”
He’s pretty convinced, though, that picking strawberries will always require people. The machines will break down, he points out. What are you going to do then? In fact, he’s looking on the bright side; maybe robots will make life easier for the workers: “You could afford to give people a day off, you know. Afternoons off, holidays off. If you have machines behind you.”
He’s never actually walked down to the other end of the field to give the robot a closer look, he says. There’s too much work to do.