For farm workers, picking strawberries is painful work. Laborers—often migrant workers from Mexico, if the farm is in California—might spend 10 to 12 hours a day in the sun, bending and re-bending over the tiny plants, trying to fill baskets with the fragile fruits as quickly as possible for little pay. If the crop isn't organic, the fields are doused in pesticides that can put workers at risk of cancer.
There's another option: Agrobot, one of several new specialized robots designed to do some of the worst manual labor on farms. The strawberry harvester moves carefully through a field, using an artificial vision system to identify ripe fruit and gently pick it. One new version of the robot, with 60 arms, can harvest a 20-acre farm in three days; the same task would take 20 humans three days.
Of course, the robot isn't cheap. A smaller 16-arm version of the machine will cost about $100,000 (it's also only available for testing now, rather than full implementation). On a strawberry farm in Mexico where workers might earn as little as $6 in a day, farm owners don't have much incentive to switch. But in places like Japan, where small farms are often run by family farmers in their seventies and where there's a labor shortage, a new report calculates that the robots are already essentially cost-competitive with humans. Farmers might also be willing to pay more.
Farmers, on average, are over 70 years old in Japan, says Sara Olson, lead agricultural analyst for Lux Research, which published a new industry report about how quickly robots may start to replace some farmworkers. "So those tasks that the average sort of young and fit person would already think of as backbreaking become nearly prohibitive, and cost becomes almost irrelevant in some of those cases."
In other places where it's hard to find farm workers—including, potentially, the U.K. thanks to Brexit—the robots might also make sense to buy now.
For other crops, robots may be cost-competitive because of regulations in some areas. In Europe, for example, where regulations strictly limit the amount of pesticides that workers can be exposed to, using a robot can keep workers safe. Robots can also reduce pesticide use; a lettuce weeding machine can precisely pull out weeds—a tedious task for humans—so that farmers don't have to use as much weed killer. The report found that an automated lettuce weeder is already as cheap as human labor in Europe.
Other robots can replace some human labor in highly skilled tasks, such as pruning grapevines in a vineyard. "To be really skilled in a way that's commercially relevant takes significant training, and those are very highly paid workers," says Olson. "In some parts of the world, it's a craft that's dying out. Training a robot to do that job means you no longer have the liability that your expert is going to move or retire."
Some of the robots can also work in inclement weather, unlike human workers, and have vision systems that work at night, so it's possible to work essentially around the clock.
For massive row crops in the U.S., such as corn or soybeans, automation is beginning to happen through auto-steering and self-driving tractors. By more precisely moving through a row, the technology can help make farmers more efficient.
"Very small improvements in efficiency can have significant margin effect for a grower," she says. "So 1% savings over 100 acres is maybe not so impressive, but a 1% savings over 25,000 acres, that's enough to be worth investing in technology."
Other technologies may be cost-competitive in a decade or more. Ultimately, it's likely that some people may have to find different work. "These new technologies will be adopted relatively slowly, so the transition won't be severe," says Olson. It may have the most impact on the large masses of migrant workers that move through farms at certain times of the season.
"The automated workers have the ability to mitigate that boom and bust so that it's possible that instead of a migrant and temporary workforce, we could shift into an industry that relies on more permanent labor of a smaller size workforce, more skill in managing the equipment," she says.
The Agrobot, at least for now, still needs workers to take the strawberries off an assembly line and put them in baskets. But it's a job that can be done sitting down rather than hunched over the field.
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