Several California companies and universities are developing a new generation of agricultural robots that could replace human labor for harvesting the fruit, a task that requires great precision and, until now, is too delicate for the machinery.
The possible future of day laborers in California would be the dream of many employers: tireless, no problems with the immigration authorities and up to 50 percent cheaper than the current workforce.
The company Vision Robotics, based in San Diego, California, is working on two types of agricultural robots for the collection of orange that use digital imaging technology.
“The first type, called ‘Scout’, scans the trees to find oranges, count and determine its exact size,” said Derek Morikawa EFE, president of Vision Robotics.
The second robot, called a “collector” and equipped with various mechanical arms, processes the information sent by the “Scout” and withdrew oranges without damage, he added.
The first prototype will begin to occur within two years and the second will be released in three and a half years, said Morikawa, who estimated that together will cost about $ 500,000.
Despite its price, the president of Vision Robotics was optimistic about demand that could generate and added that they have seen a great deal of interest among U.S. producers of citrus.
“We hope that the major producers are the first to buy our machinery, followed by service companies that rented the robots to small farmers,” said Morikawa, whose firm is working on similar machinery for collection of apple and plum.
Different groups of farmers, including the Board for the California Citrus Research, has funded the technology of Vision Robotics, which saves costs to producers and allows them to offset the current shortage of labor in the U.S. agricultural sector.
“Our robots can reduce about 50 percent of labor cost producers,” said Morikawa, who declined to make further statements on the potential benefits of this machine versus human collectors.
Also in California, the firm Ramsey Highlander has developed a sophisticated machinery for the harvesting of lettuce, and the University of California Fresno employed in a robot that uses GPS technology and advanced measurement systems to mechanize the sugar harvest grapes of high quality .
About 225,000 day laborers working each year in the harvesting of fruits and vegetables in California, and the figure will be doubled during the summer season.
However, the loss of workers who are better paid to other sectors and the tightening of laws against illegal immigration is causing a shortage of laborers and the loss of part of the production, which rots in the fields without anyone pickup.
It is estimated that only in California, 80 percent of day laborers are undocumented immigrants, most from Mexico.
According to Ted Batkin, president of the Board for the California Citrus Research, this technology will compensate for the shortage of laborers.
“We’ve been researching in robotics since three decades, but only in the last two or three years it has progressed sufficiently to ensure that this technology is effective,” said Batkin to the American media.
Batkin believed that it will take at least four years and $ 5 million more in investments for these robots to work hand in hand with human, but, even so, feels that “will never be as efficient as a man picking fruit and vegetables.” Thank goodness.