Farms Fund Robots to Replace Migrant Fruit Pickers

As if the debate over immigration and guest worker programs wasn't complicated enough, now a couple of robots are rolling into the middle of it.

Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.

The robotic work has been funded entirely by agricultural associations, and pushed forward by the uncertainty surrounding the migrant labor force. Farmers are "very, very nervous about the availability and cost of labor in the near future," says Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa.

Agricultural groups hope Vision Robotics can build this harvester to replace labor crews.

Image: Vision RoboticsIt's a surprising new market for Vision Robotics, which had been focused on developing consumer devices, including a robotic vacuum cleaner to compete with iRobot's Roomba.

When a member of the California Citrus Research Board approached the company in 2004, Morikawa was doubtful that an effective robotic picker was even feasible. A citrus grower brought the skeptical engineers to an orange farm in California's fertile Central Valley, where they walked down the neat rows of trees and stared at the oranges hanging in the branches.

Previous attempts at making a mechanical harvester were thwarted by inefficiency, explains Morikawa. In the past, experimental machines approached a tree as a human would, picking one piece of fruit and then looking for the next. In this slow process, the machine circled the tree repeatedly until it was sure it had picked all the fruit.

Morikawa says his engineers had their breakthrough idea right there in the orange grove. They realized that the task could be divided between two robots: One would locate all the oranges, and the second would pick them. "Once you know where all the fruit is, then it becomes an easy job to calculate the most efficient way to pick it all," says Morikawa.

The eight-armed orange harvester will strip ripe fruit from trees.

Image: Vision RoboticsBut it wasn't just technological challenges that held back previous attempts at building a mechanical harvester –- politics got involved, too. Cesar Chavez, the legendary leader of the United Farm Workers, began a campaign against mechanization back in 1978.

Chavez was outraged that the federal government was funding research and development on agricultural machines, but not spending any money to aid the farm workers who would be displaced. In the '80s, that simmering anger merged with a growing realization that the technology was nowhere near ready, and government funding dried up.

This time around, growers' associations are funding the research. By the end of this year, the orange growers will have invested almost $1 million in the project, says Ted Baskin, president of the California Citrus Research Board. He estimates that it will take about $5 million more to get to the finished product.