Each year, on average, there are 240 million bushels of apples in the U.S. that need to be picked. Backed by a $10 million investment from Google Ventures, Yamaha Motor Company, and others, Abundant Robotics hopes to help growers shoulder that task.
“Most types of agriculture relied on muscle power until the 19th century. Since then, automation has provided tremendous gains in productivity and standard of living,” said Abundant Robotic’s cofounder and CEO, Dan Steere. “However, for many types of fruits and vegetables, it simply hasn’t been possible to automate manual tasks such as picking fruit.”
That was, until 2012, when the idea popped up in the robotics division of SRI International, a research lab in Silicon Valley. That brainchild then came to fruition when Curt Salisbury, who is now Abundant Robotic’s CTO, approached the U.S. apple industry to explore his ideas about using robotics to automate the apple harvest.
The Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and SRI provided grant funding for the next two-and-a-half years. By the end of 2015, Steere and Salisbury felt that the technology was working well enough that it was time to move from research to commercialization.
Thus, Abundant Robotics was formed.
Along the way, the company has worked alongside orchard growers to develop and fine-tune the product for some of apple-picking’s pickiest challenges, such as how to identify ripe apples and how to pick apples at night, as well as how to incorporate a vacuum to gently pull apples from the branches.
“From the beginning, we’ve stayed in close contact with growers,” Steere said. “We’ve developed a series of prototypes and quickly gotten them into orchards to test our ideas in the real environment.”
With the current farm labor shortage, Steere sees the robots fitting in as a feasible alternative for farms.
“I see technology getting to the point that we are able to automate many tasks in agriculture that haven’t been possible before,” Steere said. “The fact that it’s becoming practical to automate these tasks means that automation is poised to bring big productivity gains to specialty crops.”
Abundant Robotics has yet to release their first commercial system, so it is still unknown how many employees a robot could replace on a farm. The company’s goal is to release the robot for commercial systems in 2018.
After that, Abundant Robotics hopes to continue to upset the fruit basket with more robots.
“We’re focused on apple harvest initially,” Steere said. “In the longer term, we expect to automate harvest of many types of fruit.”