A robotic strawberry harvester being developed in the U.S. may be the solution to the sector's 'critically' low labor supply.
Florida-based Harvest CROO Robotics' project only got off the ground in late 2013, but co-founder Gary Wishnatzki is already confident he could get a decent market slice of the rapidly-growing agricultural robotics industry.
Wishnatzki, who is also the owner of blueberry and strawberry company Wish Farms, told www.freshfruitportal.com the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention" held particularly true in this case, as many growers in the Sunshine State were facing major difficulties getting all their crop harvested.
"We've had several seasons in a row where we have not had enough labor to get all of our crops picked, like other growers in the industry who have had to abandon fields because they can't get everything picked," he said.
"That's a really hard thing for a grower to swallow."
He said the labor issue had been a trend for at least a decade, and was getting to the 'critical stage' where growers were having to scale back acreage.
Unlike for some other crops where automated and reliable harvesters were available, Wishnatzki said almost all strawberry harvesters until now had required a major change in fruit growing practices. In response, he and Harvest CROO Bob Pitzer got to work to find an easier option.
Now they are not far away from producing the 'alpha unit', which will be the predecessor to a production model.
The current prototype is capable of picking live strawberry plants, and tests to navigate the robot with GPS and place it over the plants have proven successful.
"We've successfully proven a lot of the concepts, but we've still got a long way to go in terms of getting it up to a commercial speed," Wishnatzki said.
"We know exactly what we need to do to be able to accomplish that, and I feel more confident now than ever after going through this season. We got the machine deployed a little later than we had hoped, but we did get some very useful information for moving the project forward."
While Wishnatzki could not reveal full details of exactly how the mechanism worked as some patents were still pending, he said it involved 'visioning software' that could tell when the berries were ripe.
In addition, Pitzer, who is also the company's chief technical officer, observed exactly how humans pick strawberries, and used that information to conceptualize the first prototype which 'mimics human behavior' and uses the smallest amount of motion possible to manipulate the leaves and access the fruit.
"The one thing lots of people don't understand with strawberries and berries is that they ripen at different intervals and you can only pick them at peak ripeness. It's not like a tomato where you can pick it early," Wishnatzki said.
"The software we've developed can very reliably identify a ripe berry and pick it out from a non-ripe berry, so we've got that part of the project already licked."
"The hard part is getting the berries out from underneath the leaves - and that's something we have."
The company's co-founders are planning to deploy a smaller single picking head robot in California this summer, and then the alpha prototype is expected to be rolled out in in Florida during the 2016-17 season - which typically runs from November through March.
Harvest CROO's business model will involve leasing the harvesters out to growers and charging them on a per-box basis, so customers don't have to pay major upfront costs.
'Immense' market potential
A telling testament to the technology's future is that seven of the project's first round investors are actually strawberry growers themselves, and therefore compete against Wishnatzki's Wish Farms.
"They see the need as I see it – we've got to solve this through robotics. There's been quite a ground swell of support from the whole community to get behind this," he said.
The next phase seeks to raise more investor money to build the alpha unit.
Harvest CROO's also has no intention of stopping with the strawberry harvester. Wishnatzki said this project was 'only the beginning' and mentioned that moving into other crops was on the cards.
Marketing company WinterGreen Research forecast last year in its report "Agricultural Robots: Market Shares, Strategies, and Forecasts, Worldwide, 2014 to 2020" that the market would expand from US$817 million in 2013 to a whopping US$16.3 billion by 2020.
"We plan to be the leader in agricultural robotics. The market potential for a company that is able to solve these types of problems is immense. There are going to be a lot more opportunities out there," Wishnatzki said.
Wishnatzki also mentioned the season that had just ended had been a relatively good one for Florida's growers, with an 'extremely high' production and decent market prices.
"The prices were good last year, but the problem then was we did not get the production numbers very good, but this year turned out to be really good for most people," he said.
He added that in past years Florida would generally harvest fruit deeper into April, but now the 'variety mix and competitive landscape' meant that was no longer feasible.
Wish Farms also markets some strawberries grown in California, and Wishnatzki said some districts in the West Coast state had started earlier this year, leading to a 'bit of an overlap' with Florida and causing prices to drop somewhat. However, he said now that Florida had finished the market was recovering.