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Robotic Fruit Pickers Could Pick Off Migrant Workers

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Aired 4/19/09

A rendering of a robotic orange picker
Image: A rendering of a robotic orange picker. (Courtesy: Vision Robotics)

Imagine an orange picker or cherry plucker who never gets tired. He never requires a paycheck. And he definitely doesn't need a green card, let alone a Social Security number. Farmers in California are investing serious cash into this new workforce. And a high-tech San Diego company is building it. KPBS reporter Andrew Phelps has the story.

Before we get into the future of farming, here's a sense of what fruit growers deal with now. Ted Batkin is a citrus farmer in Visalia .

Ted Batkin: The biggest problem we have is that pickers have to go up a ladder into a tree that may be 16, 17 feet high. And they're carrying a picking bag that — we now have lowered the weight down to about 38 pounds.

That's dangerous and really exhausting. Batkin says agriculture is losing workers to other sectors, like construction, where the labor is less challenging.

And the national immigration debate is threatening the farm labor pool. A new report from the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California says 80 percent of the state's day laborers are undocumented workers — most of them from Mexico.

Batkin thinks he's found an answer:

Batkin: We've been looking at robotics for 30 years, and it's only been in the last two or three years that the technology has been sufficient to make it effective. We have faster computers. We have a better understanding of hydraulics and mechanics.

Batkin is banking on robots. He's president of California's Citrus Research Board , which has already invested a half-million dollars into the technology. And now the Washington state apple industry has invested another quarter million.

A rendering of a robotic orange picker
Image: A rendering of a robotic orange picker. (Courtesy: Vision Robotics)

Here's the man making "agrobots" a reality. Derek Morikawa is robot designer in San Diego and CEO of Vision Robotics . He says robots working in teams will soon be able to "map out" an entire orchard.

Morikawa: And the way we do that is we scan the trees with our robotic vision. We locate the position of each piece of fruit in three dimensions very, very accurately, to within a centimeter or a few centimeters.

Morikawa says robotic vision can even figure out if the fruit is ripe enough for picking. That's the job of the robo-scout. The "Scout" then talks to the "Harvester," a big machine that looks like an octopus. Its mechanical arms pluck the fruit delicately enough to avoid bruising it.

Andrew Phelps: So how far are we from robots that take over the world?

Sure, he sounds diabolical. But Morikawa says he's really not. He says he doesn't want to take away human jobs — he just wants to make business more efficient.

Morikawa: So whereas humans really are limited to operating during daylight hours, and typically they get pretty tired, too, you have to capitalize on the fact that a machine can work 20 hours a day. Typically, we won't look at a project unless we can do the job for about half the cost of what it costs to field a manual labor team.

Alex Rivera: Who would you rather have? Would you rather have one that might unionize and one that needs to send their kids to school and one that might complain, that needs bathroom breaks?

That's Alex Rivera. He made a sci-fi mockumentary on robotic farm workers. He calls them "cybraceros."

Rivera: If they're developing technology that can, you know, do a quarter of the work, while the field workers are doing three-quarters of the work, well tomorrow, the machines will do half and the workers will do half. And five years, 10 years down the line, the machine does 100 percent, and the workers aren't there anymore.

But Ted Batkin, in Visalia, insists that robots will never replace people on his farm.

Batkin: There is nothing that is (as) efficient as a human picker. We don't anticipate building a machine that's better than they are. So what we really see is using the machines to pick the parts of the trees that are difficult.

Batkin says it'll be at least four years and five million dollars of research before the robots are working side-by-side with humans.

Andrew Phelps, KPBS News.

A rendering of a robotic orange picker
Image: A rendering of a robotic orange picker. (Courtesy: Vision Robotics)

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