‘Fruitbots’ Could Save Growers Money, Create High-tech Jobs

WENATCHEE, Wash. – Advancements in the mechanization of farm equipment are reducing labor costs, increasing efficiency, and improving profits for area growers of specialty crops.

Specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, including Washington’s largest crops, apples, grapes, and potatoes) make up a $45 billion per year industry characterized by the need for intensive cultivation. But the economic sustainability of these high-value crops is threatened by increasing labor costs and shortages of available labor.

Recently, in order to meet the issue of labor head on, a consortium of university, federal and private industry researchers was formed in an effort to develop a comprehensive automation strategy for specialty crops. As Dan Bernardo, dean of the WSU College of Agriculture, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences said, “We must keep the specialty crop industry competitive, or we lose it– and all its jobs — to global competitors.  Labor cost and availability is the number one threat at this time.”

The consortium of collaborators includes Washington State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State University, Purdue, Oregon State University, USDA-ARS, Vision Robotics, IONco, Toro, Trimble and Sensible Machines.

WSU Extension educator Gwen Hoheisel said the Autonomous Prime Mover is a piece of equipment that has the potential capability to improve profit and reduce labor costs for growers of specialty crops.

“The idea behind the Autonomous Prime Mover is a laser technology that has the capability to auto-steer,” said Hoheisel. Using laser guidance, the APM can “see” the trees in an orchard and steer itself down the open lanes between rows. “Auto-steering is available now in some farm equipment, but it is through the use of GPS, which is difficult to utilize in closed orchards,” she said.

The APM performs a variety of tasks that specialty crop growers would normally hire laborers to perform, including insect monitoring and elimination, weed management and detection, plant stress and disease detection, crop load scouting, caliper measurement of tree size, and augmented fruit harvesting.

“You can take this auto-steering laser technology and put it on any machine,” said Hoheisel. Currently, the laser technology is being used commercially on platforms in orchards.

“Platforms are essentially a box on the back of a tractor that pulls a worker along an orchard row while the platform moves up and down the height of the fruit tree,” said WSU Extension educator Karen Lewis. “Growers use this piece of equipment for pruning their fruit trees. It’s a much easier and more efficient way to prune than using a ladder and being forced to reposition that ladder next to each fruit tree.”

Bernardo praises these advancements in technology, even though they may displace some of the jobs for laborers in the agriculture industry. “If you keep the industry here, you’ll keep the jobs here,” said Bernardo. “Agriculture is the number one employer in Washington State. These types of technologies can help grow our industries and actually create higher paying jobs.”

Other areas of research the four-year collaborative effort is targeting include automated tree caliper measurement, reducing much of the need for labor in tree nurseries; automated pest traps, providing a more efficient and accurate way to detect specialty crop pests; and mechanical pruning, a labor-saving method for the juice grape industry.

“Most people don’t even think about what it took to get that fruit to their tables,” Hoheisel said, referring to the amount costs associated with producing specialty crops. “By the end of this four year effort we hope that some of these advancements in mechanization will become fully commercialized and utilized by area growers.”

For more information on the four-year collaborative effort that is advancing the mechanization of specialty crop production, please visit www.cascrop.com.