Robots will be picking apples this fall. But the path from prototype to commercial scale still needs to be navigated.
That’s one of the reasons why the apple industry wants to provide a map for enterprising ag tech companies to help them chart a path forward.
Led by the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, the Technology Roadmap for Tree Fruit Production will lay out a vision of the industry’s technological-need priorities and the barriers facing technology development and adoption. The commission published its first such roadmap 20 years ago, but production systems and technologies have changed significantly since then.
The new roadmap effort isn’t exactly charting new terrain — the apple industry knows where it is and where it wants to be in terms of automation technology, said Ines Hanrahan, the commission’s executive director. Rather, she sees the roadmap as a communication tool the industry can use to present information to agricultural technology developers, scientists and funding agencies, and also for the industry itself to understand how coming technologies could aid their farms and how best to prioritize research and development needs.
“We need industry feedback from all levels of the industry to get this right,” she said.
The commission initially envisioned developing the roadmap with its own staff, but last year the board decided to hire a small team of consultants who have experience in the ag tech arena and can devote time to incorporating many perspectives into one broad vision. Tenacious Ventures, an Australian company that does both investing and strategic consulting, will coordinate the project.
During a webinar in June, Tenacious Ventures co-founder Sarah Nolet outlined her team’s plan to take the rough draft that commission staff developed and begin organizing focus groups and holding in-depth interviews with growers representing variously sized farms, researchers and technology experts.
“Our intention is to consult deeply to ensure the roadmap represents the industry’s views and priorities,” she said.
After priority areas, such as harvest automation, were identified in the first phase, Nolet said her team is now working on several deep dives into the opportunities for technology and the barriers to technology adoption.
Surveys will also be shared in the coming months, to gather additional input. They plan to have a final roadmap — vetted by industry leaders — to share with a wider audience by the end of the year.
“This way I can say: ‘This is the position of the industry,’” Hanrahan said.
That’s important, as she is regularly invited to speak about and advocate for the technological needs of the apple industry in the wider agricultural technology landscape, including as part of the Global Specialty Crop Automation Initiative (see “Ag automation’s book of numbers”).
The number of technology companies pitching their products to the industry continues to grow, and Hanrahan envisions the roadmap document as a tool to help those companies do their homework on the industry before reaching out to growers.
It’s also going to be a working document that can be adapted as innovative technologies are adopted by growers, she said. Cherry and pear production needs will be added in the future as well.
Industry members who want to be involved should reach out to Hanrahan by email at: email@example.com.
—by Kate Prengaman