On Feb. 11, Western Growers announced a plan to accelerate development of harvest automation technology across high-value specialty crops. The announcement of the Global Harvest Automation Initiative was made along with collaborators in the tech industry and crop commodity groups, including the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. 

The idea is that by supporting the development of common building blocks, the initiative will enable harvest robot developers to move more quickly and cost-effectively to meet specialty crop industry needs. During a launch event held in Tulare, California, and broadcast online, Western Growers vice president of innovation, Walt Duflock, called this concept of common technology a tech stack.

“Why is everyone building robot arms? Why are we building tractors for every robot startup?” Duflock said. Instead of building each apple or strawberry harvest robot from scratch, industry-standard tractors, robotic arms and vision systems, along with data integration to help all the pieces operate together, will get technology to farmers faster.

That’s critical, considering the labor challenges facing specialty crop growers, almost all of which still harvest by hand. Western Growers believes this initiative will spur development such that in 10 years, 50 percent of specialty crops will be harvested by robots.

In addition to the tech stack to commoditize components, the initiative will connect promising startups with growers, supporting systems integration and facilitating trials, and it will create roadmaps to keep growers abreast of emerging automation and mechanization technology. 

Look for a full story in the March 1 issue of Good Fruit Grower.

by Kate Prengaman