Emerging Technologies

This flying AI robot can pick fruit – preventing waste in the process

a picture of fruit pickers working as they cut berries from the bushes

COVID-19 restrictions have made it hard to source fruit pickers. Image: REUTERS/Fernando Carranza

Douglas Broom
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Technological Transformation

  • 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.

a picture of the flying autonomous robot picking fruit
Flying autonomous robots can work 24 hours a day, and only pick ripe fruit. Image: Kubota/Tevel

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.

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 chart showing Global production of fresh fruit from 1990 to 2019
Global production of fresh fruit has risen stedily since 1990. Image: Statista

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.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

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.

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