- There’s a global shortage of seasonal fruit pickers, made worse by COVID-19 travel restrictions.
- Some farmers are forced to leave ripe fruit to rot as a result.
- Now AI flying drones can spot the ripest fruit and pick it autonomously.
- The makers say the robots will save money and reduce food waste.
It’s getting harder to find fruit pickers to harvest the world’s orchards. COVID-19 travel restrictions have prevented seasonal workers crossing borders, so some farmers are turning to AI drones to pick their crops.
Even before the pandemic, growers were finding it increasingly hard to recruit people for picking. In July 2019, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) warned of continued labour shortages.
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Farmers “try to hire American workers, but there are not many takers – and those who do take farm jobs often quit before the season is over,” said AFBF President Zippy Duvall.
Last year, with travel restrictions in place around the world, governments across Europe appealed to those who had lost their jobs in the pandemic to help with the harvest. Spain and Italy even offered to allow illegal migrants the right to work as pickers.
Now an Israeli company, Tevel Aerobotics Technologies, has invented a flying autonomous robot (FAR) which uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify and pick fruit. The robot can work 24 hours a day and picks only ripe fruit.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about AI?
In 2019, the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution convened an informal multi-stakeholder group of leaders, known as the Global AI Council (GAIC) a keen interest in creating positive futures with advanced AI systems.
One of the goals of the Council is to provide strategic guidance to the global community on the priorities for AI governance and cooperation as well as the policy implications linked to advances in AI.
The project is taking place over several months and brings together a diverse group of individuals that includes science-fiction authors, economists, policymakers, and AI experts.
The council aims to open up the possibilities for its Positive AI Economic Futures using the creativity and expertise of these participants as well as opening up the process to a much wider range of contributors.
It is also in the process of initiating a second thread of the project, running in parallel with the workshops: a movie competition in partnership with the XPRIZE Foundation. Participants will create short movies showcasing their ideas for a future economy in a concrete form that speaks to individual aspirations and fears.
Picking the best
The innovation was a direct response to labour shortages. “There are never enough hands available to pick fruit at the right time and the right cost. Fruit is left to rot in the orchard or sold at a fraction of its peak value, while farmers lose billions of dollars each year,” the company says.
The FAR robot uses AI perception algorithms to locate fruit trees and vision algorithms to find the fruit among the foliage and classify its size and ripeness. The robot then works out the best way to approach the fruit and remain stable as its picking arm grasps the fruit.
The drones are able to harvest the orchards without getting in each other’s way because of a single autonomous digital brain in a ground-based unit.
A job few people want
“We need a large number of reliable pickers and we have to pay wages, organize visas, housing, food, healthcare and transportation,” said John White, CEO of Marom Orchards, one of the first fruit farms to use the new flying robot pickers.
“Costs are rising all the time. This is hard, seasonal work and other crops can pay higher wages. Young people all over the world are abandoning agricultural work in favour of higher paying, full-time urban jobs,” he added.
What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?
Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.
Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.
With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.
Tevel insists its robots are designed to complement human fruit pickers rather than replace them. The company claims there will be a shortage of five million pickers by 2050 and says its drones will ensure the 10% of fruit currently left unharvested will all be picked in future.
The United Nations has designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables, with a focus on innovation and improved technologies to increase the efficiency and productivity of fruit and vegetable farming and to reduce loss and waste.
Last year, the World Economic Forum’s report, Data-Driven Food Systems for Crisis Resiliency, said technology must be used to make agriculture more sustainable in the aftermath of COVID-19 and called for an “innovation ecosystem” to foster new developments.