Standardizing automation systems so that robotic arms, vision systems and self-driving components can plug and play will allow technology developers to focus on customizing machines to meet the unique needs of specialty crop producers more quickly and cost-effectively than trying to design each crop’s robotic harvest technology from scratch. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower illustration)
Standardizing automation systems so that robotic arms, vision systems and self-driving components can plug and play will allow technology developers to focus on customizing machines to meet the unique needs of specialty crop producers more quickly and cost-effectively than trying to design each crop’s robotic harvest technology from scratch. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower illustration)

Ask almost any grower what tops their technological wish list, and the answer will be harvest automation. Yet almost all specialty crops are still harvested by hand, despite the proliferation in ag tech startups over the past decade and the challenges of labor availability and rising costs.

Dennis Donohue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, calls the need for harvest automation a race against time and a race in which time is running out. That’s why in February, Western Growers and collaborators, including the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission and other commodity groups, launched a new initiative to accelerate harvest automation.

The Global Harvest Automation Initiative aims to foster the development of automation building blocks that can then be customized by commodity needs — think plug-and-play robotic arms and vision systems — to reduce the need for each specialty crop to start from scratch.

The idea stemmed from conversations with ag tech companies and Western Growers members about the challenges they face in harvest technology.

“If we are overly fragmented and can’t solve the problem individually, how do we leverage together?” Donohue said. Specialty crops are so, well, specialized that it can be hard for tech companies to see the potential payoff in developing specialized technology. “This is not an ag tech issue; this is a business case issue. We need to take a more multidisciplinary, crop-collaborative approach to solve the problem,” he said.

Dennis Donohue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, meets with other members of the harvest automation initiative working group via virtual meeting in 2020. The labor challenges facing specialty crop producers are too great to let the pandemic slow efforts to launch the new automation acceleration initiative, he said. (Courtesy Western Growers)
Dennis Donohue, director of Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, meets with other members of the harvest automation initiative working group via virtual meeting in 2020. The labor challenges facing specialty crop producers are too great to let the pandemic slow efforts to launch the new automation acceleration initiative, he said. (Courtesy Western Growers)

All harvest robots, whether picking strawberries from the ground or apples from a tree, need the same core technology in terms of a self-driving platform or tractor to move through the field, vision systems to detect the fruit to harvest, artificial intelligence for processing all the imagery into functional information, and a robotic arm that moves toward the ground or tree or vine, said Walt Duflock, Western Growers’ vice president of innovation. 

“Every startup we know that is building harvest tech is building all of that from the start,” he said. Why should startups waste time designing a platform or tractor to move their machines when “we already have a bunch of great tractors from John Deere and others? Let’s come up with ways for these people to build devices that operate on the back of an existing tractor.”

Walt Duflock
Walt Duflock

By supporting the development of these building blocks — a standard tractor, vision systems, processing power and robotic arms with reliable, field-proven technology — companies can focus on the end-effectors, the devices on the end of a robotic arm that will need to vary by crop and other crop-specific challenges, Duflock said. That should both pick up the pace of commercialization and lower the cost of harvest technology.

Even for the apple industry, the specialty crop leader in automated harvest, participating in the initiative makes sense, said Ines Hanrahan, director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. 

“We want a cost-effective machine that’s affordable for everybody. We don’t have a machine that can replace our labor. They are not fast enough or cheap enough yet,” she said. “‘We feel this is the final piece of the puzzle we’ve been missing.”

The experience of the apple industry’s investment in harvest automation shows how much time and money it takes to develop and then commercialize such complex equipment from scratch, she said. Developing a supply chain of sorts, common platforms that can be customized, will make future harvest tech more affordable. 

Jeff Cleveringa, a research commission board member, agreed. The two robotic apple harvest companies the commission has funded over the years, Abundant Robotics and FFRobotics, are doing good work and continually making progress, he said, “yet tomorrow I can’t go buy one.”

Collaborating with a variety of companies with expertise in different components of complex harvest systems just makes sense, said Cleveringa, who heads research and development for Starr Ranch Growers. For example, FFRobotics licensed bin-filling technology from MAF Industries and uses a platform designed by Automated Ag, thanks to some help from the commission playing technology matchmaker, he said. 

“We said, ‘Don’t reinvent that, just license it,’” he said. “This partnership with Western Growers will introduce us to partners who build components that are field-ready for other applications.”

Having the tree fruit industry join the effort validates the approach, Donohue said. 

“It was an important message to send to our stakeholders: ‘Look, the apple industry has been at this a long time, full industry cooperation, and funding is not the issue, but progress is slow and it’s a race against time,’” he said. 

The new initiative will take advantage of the relationships Western Growers has built with ag tech companies in recent years through its Center for Innovation and Technology. Based in Salinas, California, the center facilitates technology development by identifying grower needs, identifying promising technologies, helping startups set up farm trials and communicating progress.

“We have a playbook we can use on any ag problem we want to solve,” Duflock said. “We’ve worked with a broad range of startups across ag tech. Now, let’s really focus on one key area.”

One piece of that playbook: a crop-specific roadmap for automation and mechanization that shows which companies are providing automated solutions to real farm customers and which are doing trials or R&D, he said. 

“It’s a market map, if you will, to tell growers: ‘Here’s who you want to watch for,’” he said. “The startups, when they see it, they will say: ‘We need to be on that.’”

The initiative will also focus on assessing the impact of automation technologies. For technology to succeed, it has to be cost-effective, Duflock said, and they aim to keep viable economics at the fore of every promising technology. 

With a significant investment (Western Growers declined to share cost estimates before this issue went to press), Donohue said the effort will attract attention from large tech companies that have the capabilities to move quickly.

“We’re confident it will get everyone’s attention,” he said. “It’ll be seen as a real big bet by specialty crops.” •

by Kate Prengaman