Sunday, April 30, 2017

The future has arrived ... Robot Appleseed

It seems like forever that I have been writing here, and talking in the classrooms, about how the modern day automation is a huge job-killer and a contributor to income inequality.  And, therefore, why we need to rethink public policies.  The newspaper gives me more material evidence:
Harvesting Washington state’s vast fruit orchards each year requires thousands of farmworkers, and many of them work illegally in the United States.
That system eventually could change dramatically as at least two companies are rushing to get robotic fruit-picking machines to market.
The robotic pickers don’t get tired and can work 24 hours a day.
Yes, robots picking apples.

The anti-immigration folks can yell and scream all they want about the "illegals" in this country.  But, those illegals are also the ones working our farms, our yards, our hotels, our cows, our ... If that labor supply were to be choked off, it is not as if the apples will harvest themselves and miraculously get to the nearest grocery store!

Enter automation.  It is the same automation dynamics that have also led to severe job losses in manufacturing.  But, I don't want to digress; I want to stay focused on the farm.
“Human pickers are getting scarce,” said Gad Kober, a co-founder of Israel-based FFRobotics. “Young people do not want to work in farms, and elderly pickers are slowly retiring.”
FFRobotics and Abundant Robotics, of Hayward, Calif., are racing to get their mechanical pickers to market within the next couple of years.
Harvest has been mechanized for large portions of the agriculture industry such as wheat, corn, green beans and tomatoes for some time. But for more fragile commodities like apples, berries, table grapes and lettuce — where the crop’s appearance is especially important — harvest is still done by hand.
Did you catch that?  "Israel-based."  If only people understood that economic geography is global!
While financial details are not available, the builders say the robotic pickers should pay for themselves in two years. That puts the likely cost of the machines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each.
FFRobotics is developing a machine that has three-fingered grips to grab fruit and twist or clip it from a branch. The machine would have between four and 12 robotic arms, and can pick up to 10,000 apples an hour, Kober said.
One machine would be able to harvest a variety of crops, taking 85 to 90 percent of the crop off the trees, Kober said. Humans could pick the rest.
Abundant Robotics is working on a picker that uses suction to vacuum apples off trees.
I was now fascinated with this suction technology to vacuum apples.  This from IEEE--back in college, I was a student member of this professional organization of electrical and electronic engineers!--offers some interesting observations:
Besides the sheer entertainment value, the vacuum picking technique (an approach being used by other robotics groups) looks like it might be faster in operation and easier to implement than a traditional gripper. Since it only exerts pressure when its, er, orifice (?) is mostly sealed, it can pluck apples out of trees while leaves remain untouched, and as long as it gets close enough, it looks like the apples essentially pick themselves.
The tricky parts are going to be consistently “seeing” apples that may be (I would guess) almost entirely hidden behind leaves and branches, and then managing to reach those apples with a very bulky picking system. Making it reliable and cost-effective will be another challenge, although the potential market is certainly significant. Of course, all we really have to go on right now is a blurry video of a prototype that’s almost a year old and our usual wild speculation, but our guess is that we’ll be finding out more within the year.
The video of the vaccuum-technology in apple picking is without sounds.  The gripper technology is impressive enough for me.

Building that wall--even the mere rhetoric--accelerates the building of more robots, I suppose.

As I wrote in my recent op-ed::
We the people need to try to understand such complexities in a rapidly evolving global economic geography. And, more importantly, we will need political leaders who can articulate constructive policy responses


Ramesh said...

Agriculture has been getting mechanised for a hundred years. After thousands of years when agriculture was largely manual, in the last 50 years or so, its getting mechanised furiously. The impact on jobs is profound as throughout history, agriculture has been the largest employment generating sector. Its still is, in where three quarters of the world's population lives.

An area to explore is why immigrants are prepared to work in US farms, often under huge risk because of their immigration status, while an unemployed American citizen does not want to do the same work. I would rather be unemployed than work hard for low wages. That logic needs to be tackled too.

Sriram Khé said...

Yes, I am reminded of my professor in graduate school remarking that unemployment is a luxury that only the rich can afford.
In any case, my point is the same one that I have been talking about for ever. People will work on the farms if they are properly compensated. However, Americans think that we are entitled to remarkably inexpensive strawberries and beef and ice cream and everything else. Given how much labor plays a role, well, only immigrants work the fields anymore for atrociously low compensation for some serious physical work. It is awful!

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