A company that has brought to the marketplace an autonomous strawberry harvester says it has raised $25 million to mechanize apple picking. Advanced Farm Technologies, maker of the TX Robotic Strawberry Harvester, said its original investors have re-upped for the apple project. Those investors include Kubota, Yamaha and Impact Ventures.
“We’re still really focused on our core business in strawberries,” said president and co-founder Kyle Cobb, “but we’re so excited to see what we can do with these building blocks.” Taking the design and software systems from the strawberry robot and modifying them for apples will present different challenges. But Cobb said when they tackled strawberry picking, they were solving many problems for the first time. Now that they have those solutions, they can tweak or adapt systems for new environments. For example, he said the red of a ripe strawberry may not match the desired red of an apple, but that’s an adjustment not a whole new dilemma. The grippers and angles may need to change, but the fact of a robotic arm extending out and gently pulling on fruit is similar.
Cobb said the strawberry harvester can be operated by an unskilled human worker and because the machine can run for hours, the farm operation can get many more strawberries harvested for far fewer person-hours. What’s more, he said, with farm workers in short supply and some of them getting older, becoming a robot operator offers a less physically taxing new career prospect. A person has to remove the harvested berries from the robot but otherwise is mostly just positioning the robot and using buttons and nobs, Cobb said. But he added that another new line of work down the road could be robot harvester technician.
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Apple growers have been anticipating automatic harvesting for a long time, Cobb said, which includes thinking about what the trees will need to look like to accommodate the machine. He said as his company begins work on its apple harvester, it’s also looking to other fruit trees. “More and more commodities are starting to think about how they can structure themselves for automation,” he said. Other stone fruits such as peaches, nectarines or cherries could follow and those sectors might not need to make major changes to their existing systems.
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